Your Guide to Becoming an Exercise Physiologist

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn all about what an exercise physiologist is, salary information, and how to become one.

[Featured image] An exercise physiologist plays pickleball with a client in a wheelchair.

Have you ever been injured? Suffered from a chronic disease? Those who have, especially athletes, might go see an exercise physiologist to receive an exercise regimen designed specifically for you to improve your flexibility and cardiovascular health.

As an exercise physiologist, you'll have the rewarding satisfaction of helping athletes and other individuals recover from injuries and improve their performance over time.

Here's what you need to know to become an exercise physiologist.

What is an exercise physiologist?

Exercise physiologists work with injured or sick patients to create custom treatment and exercise plans to help them recover and reach their health goals. They may work with athletes to improve their performance and overall well-being. They also rehabilitate individuals after chronic illnesses or conditions, such as disabilities.

Not to be confused with fitness trainers, athletic trainers, or fitness instructors, the primary role of an exercise physiologist is to help improve overall health by assisting patients to work on their body composition, cardiovascular health, and flexibility.

Salary and job outlook  

According to Canada Job Bank, the median wage for an exercise physiologist is $31 per hour [1]. Based on a 40-hour work week, that equates to $64,480 annually. The wage can fluctuate greatly with location and experience level, ranging from $20 per hour to $45.77 per hour.

The demand for exercise physiologists is expected to rise as health care professionals increasingly emphasize exercise as preventive care against chronic disease and a way to improve the overall quality of life. Canada Job Bank lists the job prospects for exercise physiologists as “moderate” to “good” [2]. 

Educational requirements 

Exercise physiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology or a related field. Appropriate degree programs for exercise physiologists include science and health-related courses, such as:

  • Nutrition

  • Biology

  • Anatomy

  • Kinesiology

  • Nutrition

  • Clinical work

Bachelor’s degree 

A bachelor's degree in exercise physiology is preferred for those looking to become licensed exercise physiologists. However, other relevant majors include exercise science, kinesiology, or other health care majors.

While most positions don’t require it, you can pursue a master's degree in exercise physiology, which may help you expand your career options within the field. 


As an aspiring exercise physiologist, you'll take coursework in biology, anatomy, kinesiology, and nutrition. More advanced coursework includes echocardiogram interpretation, biomechanics, and cardiac rehabilitation, among others.

The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) requires clinical exercise physiologist (CEP) candidates to show that their coursework satisfies each core competency listed for the CSEP-CEP certification. Candidates may be required to provide course outlines to support their application. The eight core competencies CEP candidates must meet include [3]: 

  • Anatomy, biomechanics and exercise physiology

  • Health behaviour change and education

  • Client pre-participation screening (& pharmacology) 

  • Advanced exercise & health assessment for apparently healthy populations

  • Advanced exercise and health assessment for chronic conditions

  • Advanced Exercise Prescription for Apparently Healthy Populations

  • Advanced Exercise Prescription for Chronic Conditions

  • Professional and Ethical Practice

Candidates must also have 100 hours of documented practical experience. This can include a co-op, work, or volunteer experience. 

Certification and training 

To achieve CEP certification, candidates must first pass a theory and practical exam administered by the CSEP.  While not required, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends CSEP-CEP candidates obtain 150 hours of additional practical experience with diverse populations to be optimally prepared [1]. This includes those with chronic conditions as well as athletes and other special populations. 

The four recommended areas of practical experience are:

  • Musculoskeletal conditions

  • Neuromuscular conditions

  • Cardiometabolic conditions

  • Pulmonary conditions 

Additionally, candidates must complete a course in emergency first-aid and hold a valid CPR Level C.

Exercise physiology vs. exercise science

While exercise physiology and exercise science are similar areas of study that focus on improving health and wellness with exercise, the two have their fair share of differences.

Exercise science generally focuses on how the human body moves. It is a broad topic that includes strength, nutrition, and physical education. Exercise physiology focuses more on how physical activity affects organs and bodily systems and the body's response to that activity.

Exercise physiologists assess patient fitness by gathering details such as pulse, oxygen saturation, body composition, flexibility, and strength. Then they use that information to design exercise routines for people with specific concerns, like injury, illness, or certain athletic goals. 


Skills needed to become an exercise physiologist

Patient care is often a very vulnerable interaction. Exercise physiologists need to effectively care for patients while considering their emotional well-being, so possessing technical and workplace skills is vital. 

Knowing how to assess and evaluate a patient’s condition properly is crucial. It’s also essential to have knowledge of exercise programs, rehabilitation, and cardiac life support. Exercise physiologists spend a lot of time face-to-face with patients, so they must have effective communication skills, empathy, patience, problem-solving skills, and active listening.

Where exercise physiologists work

An exercise physiologist can work in various settings, including hospitals, physical therapy offices, fitness centers, college athletic offices, and sports team staff. More than half of exercise physiologist jobs are self-employed and carry full-time schedules. 

In medical or clinical settings, primary care providers may refer their patients to exercise physiologists to create exercise regimens. These regimens can focus on anything from torn ligament pain relief to improving blood pressure or losing weight.

Exercise physiologists develop programs to help athletes reduce injury and minimize recovery time in athletic settings. Sports equipment designers may also hire exercise physiologists to assist in developing the safest, most effective products.  

Exercise physiologists can also work as rehabilitation specialists, coaches, trainers, clinicians, directors, or program coordinators.

Possible career pathways for exercise physiologists

Aside from working as a certified exercise physiologist, studying exercise physiology can prepare you for many other careers. An exercise physiology bachelor’s degree can be a precursor to graduate and professional education in physical therapy, occupational therapy, medicine, nursing, physician assistant studies, rehabilitation health science, and much more.

  • Clinical director: After practicing as a clinical exercise physiologist, you can pursue a clinical director position.

  • Exercise physiology professor: If you're passionate enough about exercise physiology that you want to teach others, becoming a professor could be a suitable career path for you.

  • Personal trainer: A background in exercise physiology makes for a strong personal trainer, which can lead to the opportunity of owning or managing your own business or gym.

  • Physical therapy aide: Studying for an exercise physiology bachelor's degree qualifies you to become a physical therapy aide. While working as an aide, you can continue your education and become a licensed physical therapist. From there, you may have the opportunity to work for an established clinic.

Exercise physiologists play an essential role in helping people improve their lives. If you love the idea of helping people heal from injuries and prevent chronic illness with exercise, exercise physiology may be a satisfying career for you. 

Getting started 

To learn more about the science of exercise before committing to an exercise physiology bachelor's degree, you can find self-paced courses on Coursera to help prepare you for a career in exercise physiology. Courses such as Introductory Human Physiology and Science of Exercise are good places to start for a foundation in the concepts studied by exercise physiologists.

Article sources


Job Bank Canada. “Wages: Exercise Physiologist in Canada.” Accessed April 24, 2024.

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