Exercise Science Degree and Career Options

What are your degree options in exercise science?

You can study exercise science at the undergraduate and graduate levels and earn an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate degree. Keep in mind, while higher education is not required for some fitness-related job roles, such as personal trainer, getting a degree will greatly strengthen your resume and possibly help you secure more advanced roles and higher pay.

Choose the degree level you are interested in to learn more: Associate, Bachelor or Post-Graduate.

Associate’s Degree

An associate’s degree in ES can improve or extend your employment opportunities as a fitness trainer and give you a fairly solid foundation of human biology, anatomy, physiology, movement science and nutrition principles. Some employers in the fitness industry favor or want employees that have proven their comprehension of exercise science knowledge and skills by graduating from a formal 2-year academic program. The majority of students are able to graduate in about 2 years time.

What are the different types of associate’s degrees that I can earn in exercise science?

Associate of Science (AS)

An AS degree in ES is built around courses that teach basic biological sciences as well as human movement and exercise physiology. Two or 3 liberal arts classes such as English composition, communications and psychology are usually included. Some programs have courses in exercise programming/prescription and emergency response or sports injuries. The AS is a good option if you want to work as a personal trainer right after graduation and eventually plan on transferring into a bachelor’s degree program.

Associate of Applied Science (AAS)

An AAS degree in exercise science includes many of the same subjects as an AS program, however stresses technical job skills in fitness training. The AAS curriculum usually includes practicum (a course dedicated to learning and practicing various training, fitness assessment and exercise testing skills) and other coursework that specifically prepares you to be a personal trainer. The applied knowledge and experience you’ll gain from an AAS program makes it a good choice if you want to secure an advanced personal training position right after graduation and plan on working in the field for a while.

What types of jobs are possible with an associate’s in exercise science?

You’ll be qualified for entry-level positions in the fitness sector, namely personal training and group exercise instruction.

Bachelor’s Degree

Compared to an associate’s program you’ll take more core liberal arts and science courses and be required to complete an internship or research project your senior year. Some employers require applicants to hold a bachelor’s due to the well-rounded education and experience they receive. Most students are able to finish in about 4 years.

What are the different types of bachelor’s degrees that I can earn in exercise science?

Bachelor of Science (BS) or Arts (BA)

The BS degree is predominantly offered in ES and related majors. Majors very similar or synonymous with exercise science include kinesiology, exercise physiology, movement science and fitness & wellness. A small number of schools offer a BA in ES. You’ll hear conflicting reports supporting or refuting that a BA covers broader material, is less technical or more theoretical compared to a BS. When it comes down to brass tacks, whether you have a BS or BA shouldn’t make a difference in how your degree is viewed by employers. However, you should always analyze the curriculum of any bachelor’s program you’re interested in to get a better idea of the exact coursework each school is offering.

Many ES and related majors offer different tracks depending on your intended career path. Some common study tracks include:

  • Pre-health professional (i.e. pre-physical therapy or pre-physician assistant)
  • Corporate wellness
  • Fitness training
  • Clinical exercise physiology (i.e. cardiac rehabilitation)
  • Human performance
  • Research

What types of jobs are possible with a bachelor’s in exercise science?

It will prepare you for various entry- to mid-level jobs in the fitness industry, such as training, strength coaching, managerial, directorial and corporate wellness roles. It also can enable you to secure entry-level positions in the healthcare field as an exercise physiologist in cardiac rehab or clinical exercise specialist.

Graduate Degree

ES degrees are available at both the master’s and doctorate (PhD) levels as well. Similar to a bachelor’s in ES, there are grad programs that use related or more specific terminology in their degree title such as exercise physiology, movement science and rehabilitation science as opposed to the phrase ‘exercise science’. A post-baccalaureate degree is required to become a college professor and will make you eligible for more senior or administrative roles in both fitness and healthcare.

What are the different types of graduate degrees that I can earn in exercise science?

Master’s Degree (MS)

An MS in ES involves advanced courses that revolve around the application and research of the movement sciences. Similar to a 4-year program, you’ll be required to do an internship and/or research project, however with a lot more hours put in, including an in-depth final presentation. Or you might be required to write and present a thesis based on a study you or others have conducted. Most master’s programs will take 1-2 years to complete.

You’ll most likely be required to choose one of the following tracks that emphasize a certain area of study:

  • Fitness and wellness
  • Clinical exercise physiology
  • Human Performance
  • Research
  • Public health

What types of jobs are possible with a master’s degree in exercise science?

You’ll be qualified for mid- to high-level positions in fitness and wellness as well as entry- to mid-level positions in health care. For example, an increasing number of hospitals are requiring exercise physiologists (EPs) to have their master’s. An MS may also allow EPs to advance into more senior roles with slightly higher pay.

Doctorate Degree (PhD)

A Doctor of Philosophy in ES is based almost exclusively on advanced applied science, research methodology, statistics and writing courses. A large part of your PhD studies will be put towards a dissertation, which alone requires at least 1 year to complete. You’ll be required to find a specific area of exercise science that has yet to be researched or explore a new area of existing research in starting your dissertation. In order to graduate you have to successfully defend your dissertation before a panel of professors in your department. Expect to spend at least 2-3 years (after your master’s) in acquiring a PhD degree.

What types of jobs are possible with a PhD in exercise science?

A PhD is really for those wanting to pursue a career in academics and will qualify you for teaching and research positions in colleges & universities as well as high-level administrative jobs in health and fitness. For example, some PhDs go on to become the chair or chief administrator of fitness and wellness departments at hospitals.

What career fields and professions do ES grads go into?

Compared to other undergraduate majors, ES provides arguably the most well-rounded understanding of the human body. From the core biological sciences to applied physiology, this area of study provides an excellent foundation for careers in both fitness and health care. ES grads can pursue a diverse range of professions, many of which require further schooling.

Choose the career you are interested in to learn more:

Fitness, Nutrition and Wellness Professions

Dietitian
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Bachelor’s degree in nutrition science or related major from a school that’s accredited by the ADA’s Commission on Accreditation for Dietetics Education (CADE). To become a Registered Dietitian (RD), something that is required of many employers, you must pass the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam.

Average salary

$56,170 (10th percentile make less that $34,500 and 90th percentile make over $77,590)

Job description

Dietitians oversee food-service operations for places such as hospitals and academic institutions, advocate healthy eating habits through teaching and consultation, or carry out research. They can specialize in clinical, community, or consultant dietetics, and work in management, research, business, and health care. These nutrition specialists should be clear and effective speakers, since their work may often involve public speaking as well as counseling.

Dietetic Assistant
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Associate’s degree from a CADE-accredited dietetic technician program. In order to become a Registered Dietetic Technician (DTR), which is usually required by employers, you’re required to pass the CDR exam for DTR registration.

Average salary

$28,680 (10th percentile make less that $18,070 and 90th percentile make over $43,460)

Job description

Dietetic technicians help run facilities – such as hospitals, nursing homes, schools, restaurants, and food-processing plants – that prepare food. Often supervised by dietitians, dietetic technicians might supervise others or work on their own. Their responsibilities may include helping people form healthy eating habits, managing budgets, ordering food, and producing meals. DTs that work for food companies may help with preparing the nutrition information that appears on labels or overseeing sanitation.

Fitness Instructor
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Similar to personal trainers, fitness instructors usually require only a certification to work.

Average salary

ACE reports that fitness professionals with their group instructor certification on average make just under $48,000 per year or $24.50 per hour.

Job description

Fitness instructors lead group activities in gyms, health clubs, outdoor fields and other recreational areas. They sometimes work in nursing homes, teaching people how to maintain and improve their physical health and strength despite illness, disability, or age.

They usually specialize in a certain area such as dance aerobics, pilates, martial arts, or high-intensity training. Instructors have to be resourceful and flexible, constantly seeking effective ways to instruct and motivate your students. They teach by example, exercising alongside, or in front of, their students.

Health Coach
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Health coaches usually have earned at least their bachelor’s degree and a health coaching certification. There are various certifying organizations and programs, which you can read about here.

Average salary

Since it’s not uncommon for already established healthcare professionals to take on the role of health coach, in addition to those in the fitness field, salary will vary widely. According to the American Council on Exercise, their certified health coaches earn over $55,000 a year.

Job description

Health coaches provide one-on-one consultation and guidance in educating their clients on healthy lifestyle habits, including proper nutrition, routine physical activity and effective stress management skills. Some health coaches may specialize in areas such as smoking cessation and obesity. As a personal health advocate, you’ll work with clients that may need help in all or just certain aspects of their health.

Personal Trainer
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

High school diploma/GED and certification from a recognized personal trainer certifying agency such as ACE, ACSM, ISSA, NASM or NSCA is minimally required. However, it’s not uncommon for trainers now to have their bachelor’s degree and in fact, a degree is required by some employers especially in clinical settings.

Average salary

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), personal trainers certified by this organization earn over $53,000 annually or $25.00 hourly on average.

Job description

Personal trainers help individuals structure and complete their fitness routines. As a trainer, you will help your clients reach their goals, which will differ widely. Among the main reasons people hire personal fitness trainers is to receive professional guidance, stay motivated and stick with their exercise program.

If you become a fitness trainer, you’ll work one-on-one with clients, in their homes or in health clubs. You will evaluate their abilities, decide on training programs that fit their needs, demonstrate a variety of exercises, offer encouragement, and make sure they use exercise equipment correctly with proper biomechanical form. You may also find yourself advising them on issues as varied as what to eat and what running shoes to wear.


Therapy and Rehabilitation Professions

Athletic Trainer
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Bachelor’s degree in athletic training in addition to passing the Board of Certification (BOC) exam. An increasing number of ATs have a master’s, which may be required by certain employers.

Average salary

$44,000 (10th percentile make less that $26,000 and 90th percentile make over $64,100)

Job description

Athletic trainers treat injuries suffered during training and competition. They also help prevent injuries through a combination of education and protective gear like braces and tape. ATs also take on the challenge of helping rehabilitate athletes or active individuals through the often slow process of recovery. Most ATs work for scholastic, amateur and professional sports teams, however you’ll find some working at hospitals, clinics and government agencies.

Chiropractor
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Doctor of chiropractic degree from a 4-year program and passing the National Board of Chiropractic Examiners (NBCE) exam is required. You can get into some DC schools having completed only two years of undergraduate education, however more schools are requiring all applicants to have their bachelor’s.

Average salary

$79,600 (10th percentile make less that $31,000 and 90th percentile make over $143,000)

Job description

Doctors of chiropractic medicine (DCs or DCMs) are best known for their main therapeutic activity: manipulating the spinal column of patients with various health problems in order to correct imbalances. Chiropracty is a holistic health-care approach, which means that it’s based upon the idea that good health depends on a wide range of physical, mental, and emotional factors. As the benefits of holistic medicine are recognized, chiropractic is starting to be more accepted as a legitimate health-care practice.

Given their holistic approach, it’s no surprise that chiropractors do much more than straighten spines. They also use water, light, electricity, heat, massage, and ultrasound when treating patients. And the treatment doesn’t always stop when patients leave the office. They may take with them advice on healthy eating, exercise, and stress-management habits. DCs may specialize in particular areas of treatment, including nutrition, internal disorders, orthopedics, neurology, and sports injuries.

Exercise Physiologist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

A bachelor’s in exercise science or related major is minimally required, while some employers and more advanced positions call for a master’s degree in exercise physiology.

Average salary

$47,600 (10th percentile make less than $31,000 and 90th percentile make over $70,100)

Job description

Exercise physiologists work in either human performance or clinical setting, monitoring the effects of physical activity and prescribing exercise programs. They can conduct and interpret the results of various physiological tests such as EKGs and VO2 (aerobic capacity) and teach corrective exercise techniques. Most EPs are employed in the cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation departments of healthcare facilities.

Massage Therapist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

While graduating from a 1-year massage therapy diploma program is minimally required, there are also 18-24 month MT associate degree programs available. Depending on your state of practice, certification and/or licensure from the National Certification Board for Therapeutic Massage & Bodywork (NCBTMB) or the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards (FSMTB) may be required.

Average salary

$40,400 (10th percentile make less that $18,400 and 90th percentile make over $70,100)

Job description

Massage therapists combine an understanding of their clients’ needs with technical know-how to decide how massage can help in each case. Whether their clients are stressed-out workaholics, senior citizens with poor circulation, or professional athletes, most MTs have an arsenal of techniques to choose from. Two of the most popular methods are the traditional Swedish massage and shiatsu, in which the therapist applies pressure to precise points on the body. As a massage therapist, you might eventually specialize in a particular area, such as myofascial release, prenatal massage, sports massage or spa therapy.

Occupational Therapist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

A master’s degree in occupational therapy and passing the NBCOT exam is needed to become an OT.

Average salary

$76,400 (10th percentile make less that $50,500 and 90th percentile make over $107,100)

Job description

The name of this specialty may be misleading: occupational therapy isn’t just about helping people perform more effectively in the workplace. It’s also about helping people function better in other everyday settings, such as home and school. The patients in occupational therapy have difficulty functioning because of injury, physical illness, mental or emotional disorders, or congenital or developmental defects.

For example, OTs can help individuals with cerebral palsy learn to dress and eat without assistance, work with autistic children to help them become more comfortable around other people and help rehabilitate patients with severe hand, finger and wrist injuries.

Occupational Therapy Assistant
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

An associate’s degree in occupational therapy assisting and passing the National Board for Certification in Occupational Therapy (NBCOT) COTA exam is required.

Average salary

$53,100 (10th percentile make less that $33,000 and 90th percentile make over $73,100)

Job description

As an occupational therapy assistant, you’ll teach clients with mental, physical, emotional, and developmental obstacles how to perform tasks like cooking, dressing, and driving. Tasks include planning activities for clients, writing reports on their progress, demonstrating therapy techniques, and designing and making special equipment.

Physical Therapist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from a 3-year program is now required, in addition to passing the 250-question National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTs.

Average salary

$81,100 (10th percentile make less that $55,600 and 90th percentile make over $112,000)

Job description

Physical therapists examine patients, identifying the source of their problems based on factors such as strength, range of motion, respiration, motor function, balance, and coordination. They choose the best course of treatment based upon their diagnosis and involve the patients themselves as much as possible in their own treatment. That treatment may include exercise; the application of heat, cold, or electrical impulse; massage; and the use of devices, such as wheelchairs, crutches, and prostheses. They monitor the patient’s progress and, when appropriate, modify the treatment regimen.

Physical Therapy Assistant
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

You’ll need to earn an associate’s degree in physical therapy assisting from a two-year program and pass the 200-question National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) for PTAs.

Average salary

$52,300 (10th percentile make less that $32,400 and 90th percentile make over $72,700)

Job description

Part of your job will involve treating and rehabilitating patients using various exercise modalities, hydrotherapy, ultrasound and electrical treatments, massage, and hot and cold packs. You’ll also adjust the fit of special devices like braces and joint-stabilizing wraps and train patients in their use and maintenance.

Recreational Therapist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Recreational therapists are usually expected to have at least a bachelor’s degree in therapeutic recreation or related major. Being credentialed by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification is recommended and required by some employers.

Average salary

$44,300 (10th percentile make less that $26,400 and 90th percentile make over $67,300)

Job description

Recreational therapists use arts and crafts, drama, music, sports, and many other activities to treat patients. They identify the needs and abilities of clients before choosing the most effective recreational activities. They can be found in hospitals and nursing homes, parks, schools, and community and social service centers.

Respiratory Therapist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

At least an associate’s degree in respiratory care or therapy, but some employers require a 4-year degree. Either a CRT (Certified Respiratory Therapist) or RRT (Registered Respiratory Therapist) certification from the National Board for Respiratory Care is also necessary for most RT positions.

Average salary

$57,200 (10th percentile make less that $41,000 and 90th percentile make over $75,400)

Job description

Respiratory therapists evaluate and treat people with breathing disorders due to disease, environmental factors, or developmental problems. By testing lung capacity and the acidity or alkalinity level of the blood, respiratory therapists identify the source of the problem and the best treatment. Treatment can involve the administration of oxygen, medication, or both, or the removal of fluid from the lungs.

Speech-Language Pathologist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Master’s degree in speech-language pathology and in some states the Certificate of Clinical Competence in Speech-Language Pathology (CCC-SLP) is needed for practice.

Average salary

$72,700 (10th percentile make less than $44,400 and 90th percentile make over $107,700)

Job description

Sometimes referred to as speech therapists, speech-language pathologists diagnose people with difficulties in using and understanding verbal and nonverbal communication. These difficulties may be caused by illness, injury, mental or neurological disorder, or psychological trauma. They may be genetic, developmental, or acquired. Using an established battery of tests, techniques, and instruments, SLPs identify the source of the patient’s problem and devise an individualized treatment plan. The plan may involve speech therapy, assistive devices, sign language instruction, or medical treatment.


Medical Professions

Cardiovascular Tech
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Cardiovascular technicians and technologists can receive on-the-job training or certification through a one-year program. A two-year associate degree, however, is usually the best way to qualify. Training at the bachelor’s degree level is becoming more common and possibly required to work at some hospitals in the future. A specialty credential from Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI) may be required depending on state or employer.

Average salary

$53,100 (10th percentile make less that $27,800 and 90th percentile make over $80,800)

Job description

Cardiovascular techs operate electrocardiographs and other electronic equipment to record cardiac activity of patients as an aid in the diagnosis and treatment of heart disease. As a cardiovascular tech, you will conduct various cardiac tests. These include electrocardiographic monitoring, ambulatory monitoring, exercise tolerance, pacemaker threshold, and pacemaker analysis. During these tests, you will select and record cardiac data for interpretation by doctors. You may also work alongside cardiologists performing more invasive procedures, such as cardiac catheterization and open-heart surgery. Your job in these situations will be to monitor a patient’s blood pressure and heart rate during the procedure and to notify the surgeon if something goes wrong.

Medical Assistant
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Employers prefer to hire medical assistants with diplomas or certificates that take about a year to earn or an associates degree, which takes two years. In addition, some employers require certification in medical assisting from an organization accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies.

Average salary

$30,600 (10th percentile make less that $21,100 and 90th percentile make over $41,600)

Job description

Medical assistants combine administrative and clinical skills to help physicians’ offices and clinics run smoothly. Often, the medical assistant is the first person patients meet when they go in to see a doctor. MAs are responsible for clerical tasks, such as scheduling patient visits, making reminder calls, communicating with pharmacists and other health care practitioners, and sometimes maintaining patient records and billing. They also work in the examining room. Before the doctor or nurse comes in to see the patient, the medical assistant may conduct a brief health-history interview; take vital signs, such as blood pressure, temperature, and pulse; and instruct the patient on how to prepare for the practitioner’s visit. Medical assistants also prepare exam rooms, stock medical supplies, collect lab specimens, and make sure that equipment is sterile and operational. Many have training in billing and coding, so they can also perform the duties of billing and coding specialists.

Physician Assistant
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

Graduating from 2-year post-graduate program accredited by the Accreditation Review Commission on Education for the Physician Assistant (ARC-PA). Typically, PA programs culminate in a master’s degree. You’re also required to pass the NCCPA (National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants) exam.

Average salary

$92,500 (10th percentile make less that $62,400 and 90th percentile make over $124,800)

Job description

Physician assistants (PAs) are medical professionals licensed to practice medicine under the guidance of a physician. PAs are allowed to perform physical exams, identify and treat injuries and health conditions, order and analyze tests, recommend preventive health measures, assist during operations and prescribe medication (in most states).

Podiatrist
MINIMUM EDUCATION REQUIRED:

You’ll spend at least four years at podiatry school to earn the Doctor of Podiatric Medicine (DPM) degree. The Council on Podiatric Medical Education accredits the small number colleges of podiatric medicine in the United States. Most podiatry-school graduates spend at least two years in residency (on-the-job training). Some residency programs last as long as four years. Many students use this time to develop a specialization in such areas as surgery or sports medicine.

Technically, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree to attend podiatry school – at least 3 years or ninety credits of undergraduate education. However, almost all podiatry students do have a bachelor’s and some have graduate study under their belt as well.

Average salary

$132,500 (10th percentile make less than $52,500 and 90th percentile make over $187,200)

Job description

Doctors of podiatric medicine (DPMs) are the only medical professionals whose entire training and practice is focused on bones, joints and tissue below the knee – mainly the ankle and foot. From preventive care to surgery, podiatrists treat injuries and diseases of the ankle, feet, toes and heel, such as fractures, sprains and infections. They commonly care for athletes and diabetic patients.


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References:

Career profile information contained on this page is based on and continuously updated using the following resources.

  • Occupational Information Network. (2014). O*NET Online. Retrieved from http://www.onetonline.org/
  • U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2014). Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/ooh/