Last updated on September 19th, 2023.
A career in exercise physiology can be an exciting and rewarding career in a variety of locations and companies. Exercise physiologists may be found in hospitals, fitness centers, government locations, or even working for themselves at their own health company. No matter where, they are helping individuals become stronger and healthier.
Becoming an exercise physiologist takes a strenuous academic experience, requiring a bachelor’s and possibly a master’s degree in exercise physiology, kinesiology, or other related science. It also involves certification hours, but ends with a rewarding career helping individuals with a variety of health-related issues.
There is no set definition of what constitutes a certified exercise physiologist. Read on to discover the vast employment opportunities, where to study for this rewarding career, and the lucrative median salaries that could be obtained after the academic study and continuing education required for this satisfying and worthwhile career in health.
What is a Certified Exercise Physiologist?
A certified exercise physiologist specializes in helping patients analyze their overall fitness needs so that they can improve their health and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Patients will often work with a certified exercise physiologist when they are worried about certain health issues and chronic conditions, including but not limited to:
- Heart disease
- Pulmonary lung disease
- Weight gain or obesity
- Cardiovascular issues
- Metabolism issues
Certified exercise physiologists also work with athletes to help them build their strength, endurance, flexibility, and overall fitness level. They may work in college-level athletic training programs, fitness gyms and facilities, rehabilitation clinics that focus on amateur, collegiate, or professional athletes, or even have their own companies.
Certified exercise physiologists may be hired by sports medicine or training facilities to create specific fitness programs to help athletes recover from any injuries they endured and help prevent injuries in the future. There are also athletic equipment companies that hire certified exercise physiologists to help with the design of sports equipment.
It is important to note that a certified exercise physiologist does not equate to a personal trainer found at some fitness gyms and facilities. Unlike a personal trainer, who may be certified but not need the same educational requirements, a certified exercise physiologist is considered a healthcare professional with a higher education degree.
What are the Best Places to Study Exercise Physiology?
There are academic programs all over the world that offer bachelor’s and master’s programs in exercise physiology. Concordia University comes out as one of the top programs, with a bachelor’s and master’s program offered at its Saint Paul location and a Master’s of Science in Applied Exercise Science available at its Chicago location.
Other programs across the country are offered in the classroom or online as follows:
- California Baptist University – Bachelor’s or Master’s in Kinesiology
- Missouri Baptist University – Online Master of Science in Fitness Management
- Georgia Southern University – Master of Science in Kinesiology
- Southern Utah University – Online Master of Science in Sports Conditioning and Performance
- Texas A&M University – Master of Science in Health, Kinesiology and Sports Studies
These are just a few of the best places to study exercise physiology and you should choose your educational path based on what career you may want to have in the future. For example, if you are interested in sports coaching, you may want to attend the University of Northern Colorado and attain a Master of Arts in Sports Coaching.
The University of Texas of the Permian Basin offers an online program that ends with a Master of Science in Kinesiology and gives students the opportunity to take classes from a consortium of universities working within one system. If you have a Bachelor’s in Kinesiology, this is a great opportunity to work with a variety of graduate professors.
Is Exercise Physiologist a Good Career?
A certified exercise physiologist can be a great career for an individual who enjoys physical activity and excels in the sciences and medical coursework. Since you are integrating physical activity and exercise programs with disease and illness prevention, better sports performance, and the rehabilitation of athletes and everyday individuals.
Exercise physiologists have a wide range of working conditions, which make this type of career very marketable. Whether it is working with professional athletes, teaching in academia, helping with cardiac rehabilitation, or even working with the military, every day is different in this career. You could own your company or work in the following:
- College and university athletic training programs
- Teaching in higher education for exercise science, kinesiology, or other related programs
- Fitness facilities and centers
- Military or other government training centers
- Corporate wellness programs
- Rehabilitation health centers
This type of career is usually part of a healthcare team in one of the locations above. A typical workday for a certified exercise physiologist could include managing exercise stress tests, developing exercise programs for individuals or athletes, or evaluating the cardiovascular or metabolic health of patients.
For example, a certified exercise physiologist could even work for NASA to see how an astronaut’s body and bone density may change when he or she spends a prolonged period of time in outer space and microgravity. This is just one of many unique careers a certified exercise physiologist could have in order to help a client maintain health.
Some Specific Careers for an Exercise Physiologist
There are numerous career paths related to the job of an exercise physiologist that could be very rewarding and could be found in many areas of the United States. For example, a trainer in athletics who specializes in diagnosing muscle and bone injuries and then aiding in the treatment and prevention would need this background.
Occupational, physical, recreational, and respiratory therapists also fall under this career category. This could be anywhere from treating patients who have trouble breathing (respiratory), helping the injured recover and manage pain (physical), help disabled patients with therapy (occupational), and coordinate recreational programs.
Fitness trainers and instructors usually fall under the category of an exercise physiologist as do other unique careers like a Nuclear Medicine Technologist. This position would actually help prepare drugs that are radioactive and then administer them for therapeutic or imaging purposes in hospitals, offices, or the government.
How Many Years Does it Take to Become an Exercise Physiologist?
Although there are no uniform academic, licensure, or certification requirements to become a certified exercise physiologist, an undergraduate degree in exercise science or kinesiology is usually the educational track needed for this job. More companies are also requiring a master’s degree that can be attained either online or in person.
A bachelor’s degree will probably take a minimum of four years to complete and a master’s program could be an additional two years or more if going full time. The coursework is intense and ranges from kinesiology and psychophysiology, to sports nutrition, biomechanics, ECG interpretation, cardiac rehabilitation, and statistics.
Although it may take longer than some other careers to become an exercise physiologist, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the job outlook was growing at 11 percent, which is much faster than the average career. There were nearly 20,000 jobs in this career in 2019 and more than half of the exercise physiologists were self-employed:
- 62% – self-employed
- 22% – hospitals, state, local, and private institutions
- 4% – Occupational, physical and speech therapists and audiologists
- 2% – Physician offices
- 2% – Government
Attaining a job as an exercise physiologist also takes additional time because of the hands-on experience required after graduating from college. Similar to other careers in medicine, once you attain your bachelor’s and possibly master’s degree, you will also need to take the time to complete the proper certifications depending on your employer:
American College of Sports Medicine
This accreditation is for exercise physiologists who wish to work in the fields of sports medicine and exercise science. Three levels of certification are offered: after you attain a bachelor’s in Exercise Science and, if necessary, attain the proper amount of hands-on clinical experience:
- ACSM Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)
- ACSM Clinical Exercise Physiologist (CEP), and
- Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP)
All three of the above accreditations require CPR certification along with passing their respective exams. The CEP and RCEP also require a minimum of 400 and 600 hours, respectively, of clinical experience.
They each also require 60 continuing education hours to be completed and certification renewal every three years. The EP-C does not require the clinical experience needed for the CEP accreditation. The RCEP certification is the only one that requires a master’s degree as well as additional clinical experience.
American Society of Exercise Physiologists
This group offers a credential of Board Certified Exercise Physiologist (EPC) after taking the EPC exam. The exam has 200 multiple choice questions and allows for a four-hour time limit, and individuals must be a member of the ASEP and already have bachelors or master’s degree in Exercise Science or Exercise Physiology.
Individuals interested in ASEP certification also must complete specific coursework requirements and must complete continuing education courses every five years to maintain this ASEP certification.
National Academy of Sports Medicine
There is no certification available through the NASM, but you can attain credentials through their personal trainer certification or other special certifications:
- Behavioral Change Specialist
- Performance Enhancement Specialist
- Corrective Exercise Specialist
These are the only certifications that are free; the others have a cost that ranges anywhere from $125 to $349.
(For more of the most respected personal training certifications, check out that amazing article!)
How Much Does an Exercise Physiologist Make a Year?
The median pay for an exercise physiologist in 2020 was $50,280 (more than $24 an hour), but the salary could range anywhere from $30,700 to $73,000 depending on the individual’s certification, experience, work facility, and location. Louisiana is the only state the currently requires a license, and salaries may range depending on the job:
- Government – $72,440
- Colleges and universities – $65,830
- Hospitals, state, local, and private institutions – $49,390
- Physician offices – $48,200
- Occupational, physical and speech therapists and audiologists – $45,190
Government careers are not only the most lucrative choice for exercise physiologists but could also be the most exciting depending on where you are located. General medical and surgical hospitals, outpatient health centers, and specialty hospitals could also have rewarding careers in the $50,000 to $60,000 base pay range.
Location also plays a role in how much an exercise physiologist could make per year. The five states with the highest employment levels of exercise physiologists are Texas, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and California. California currently plays the most annual mean wage while Michigan is slightly less than the other four states:
- California – $66,380
- Illinois – $55,750
- Pennsylvania – $51,550
- Texas – $50,610
- Michigan – $48,970
Although Michigan’s annual mean salary may be less, the state has the highest concentration of job opportunities for exercise physiologists compared to the other states. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan area in Texas has the highest employment level followed by Chicago, Illinois and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
If you enjoy helping others become healthier and stronger, a career in exercise physiology can be a rewarding choice. From working with athletes to helping cardiovascular or metabolic issues, you will learn how to assist your clients in overcoming pain, fighting disease, or simply living a healthier lifestyle.
(Interested in getting certified, but don’t really know how? We’ve got you covered with these steps to getting certified as a personal trainer!)