Careers in Exercise Physiology
by Paul Davis
Associate Professor of Kinesiology
University of North Carolina at Greensboro (NC)
What is exercise physiology?
Exercise physiology is a sub-discipline of kinesiology that addresses 1) the short-term biological responses to the stress of physical activity and 2) how the body adapts to repeated bouts of physical activity over time. As such, exercise physiology professionals often have the responsibility of conditioning a person to a higher level of fitness and/or health while, at the same time, being aware of safety issues (risk of injury, illness, environmental exposure, etc.) associated with a single session of exercise. The type of client that can benefit from training under an exercise physiology professional varies greatly, ranging from world class athletes wishing to improve their performance to patients with chronic illnesses wishing to increase or maintain their ability to accomplish activities of daily living.
What types of careers are available?
America’s constant interest in sport, as well as the continued growth of our older and obese populations, creates a robust job market for professionals with an exercise physiology background. For the most part, these jobs can be divided into those working with apparently healthy clients (non-clinical) and clients with chronic diseases or other medical concerns (clinical).
Exercise professionals working in non-clinical environments often deal with adults who want to lose weight or who want to gain fitness, either for overall health benefits or for engagement in recreational activities. The most common non-clinical exercise environments include private fitness facilities and community organizations (YMCAs, etc.). In addition, many corporations now offer fitness and wellness programs for their employees. Careers in these settings range from personal training and leading group exercise classes to managing a facility. Personal trainers may work for an exercise facility or as independent contractors.
Strength and conditioning specialists who work with athletic populations may be hired by professional athletic teams or by intercollegiate athletic programs. In addition, it is not uncommon for conditioning coaches, particularly those in individual sports (e.g., track and field, bicycling), to be self-employed. In recent years, the training of teen athletes has become increasingly popular. As a result, many private fitness facilities now offer both general and sport-specific conditioning programs for young athletes.
Clinical exercise physiologists offer medically-supervised exercise programs for several different chronic diseases, the most common treat patients with heart or lung diseases. Although some of these programs are separate (heart and lung diseases), many programs are combined, so it is prudent for a clinical exercise professional to have the ability to prescribe exercise for both cardiac and pulmonary patients. In addition, the number of exercise programs available to treat cancer patients is growing, so this is becoming a potential area of employment for clinical exercise professionals. While people who are overweight or mild-to-moderately obese may obtain sufficient help in fitness facilities designed for apparently healthy individuals, medically-supervised weight-loss programs are available for the severely obese. Also, more and more exercise programs for senior citizens are becoming available in settings ranging from community exercise facilities to nursing homes. While exercise programs for the elderly are not always medically supervised, working with this population still requires the knowledge of clinical conditions and medications typically required in clinical exercise settings.
In addition to careers that involve prescribing and leading exercise, teaching jobs for exercise physiologists are available in higher education. These range from teaching such coursework as personal fitness and anatomy and physiology in community college and bachelor’s programs to exercise physiology, testing, and prescription courses in bachelor’s and master’s programs to the exercise physiology of specific biological systems (cardiovascular, skeletal muscle, etc.) in doctoral programs. A doctoral degree is usually required to teach in higher education, although some positions in community colleges and bachelor’s programs may be obtained with a master’s degree. In addition to teaching, faculty in master’s and doctoral degree-granting programs usually conduct research. The topics of this research can range from the determination of an effective exercise training regimen in a particular population to the identification of a cellular mechanism responsible for exercise’s protective effect against a particular disease.
Finally, because of the required science prerequisites (biology, anatomy, chemistry, etc.), many students use kinesiology programs with strong exercise physiology requirements to prepare for entry into graduate programs for various health professions, such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, and even medicine. Students often find that kinesiology is a more enjoyable and practical major than other disciplines offering pre-professional majors. In addition, many professionals in pharmaceutical and medical equipment sales have exercise physiology backgrounds.
What preparation do I need to get a job?
At present, most states do not legally require a college degree or any type of certification in order to prescribe exercise but some state legislatures have recently proposed legislation to require personal trainers to obtain certification or have a degree in kinesiology. Many employers already require one or both. In general, reputable facilities hiring personal trainers or people to lead exercise classes require some sort of fitness leadership certification (see below). Although a bachelor’s degree may or may not be required for entry-level jobs, most jobs in fitness management, particularly in community and corporate settings, require a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in kinesiology or a related area is often helpful. In addition to coursework in exercise physiology and exercise prescription, other courses typically found in well-rounded kinesiology programs (e.g., exercise and sport psychology) are usually very helpful to those responsible for prescribing exercise to individuals. Business classes (e.g., management, organizational behavior) may also be beneficial to those wishing to advance to management positions. Finally, coursework specific to youth or the elderly should be taken if one plans to work with these populations. Although only Registered Dieticians can prescribe diets, nutrition courses are still very helpful for exercise professionals, whether working with athletes or those trying to lose or manage weight.
Clinical exercise positions nearly always require a bachelor’s degree and often require a master’s. Even when a master’s degree is not required for an entry-level position, it usually results in a higher salary and may be very helpful in terms of advancing to a supervisory position. In addition to the coursework mentioned above, clinical exercise professionals need a working knowledge of pathophysiology, medications, and exercise testing and prescription for chronically-diseased individuals.
In addition to obtaining a kinesiology degree, earning the right certification shows an employer and its clientele that a professional has the specialized knowledge base and skills required to perform a particular job. While a large number of exercise certification-granting organizations exist, some are definitely more reputable than others. Some of the more well-recognized organizations that offer general fitness-related certifications are the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), IDEA Health and Fitness Association, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). NSCA also offers a strength and conditioning certification designed for those working with more athletic populations. ACSM also offers credentials for those working with clinical populations.
Where can I find out more?
The above-listed organizations and others offer web sites, publications, and meetings that are informative in terms of career choices and report pertinent research and industry trends. Many also have job listing services. The table lists some of the more well-known fitness- and clinical exercise physiology-related organizations and their web site addresses. These can be useful in choosing a profession, as well as monitoring and becoming better schooled in a chosen profession, both before and after graduation!