Fitness and Sports Medicine Careers

Female athletic trainer assisting volleyball athlete with preventive injury stretch.

As an increasing number of people realize or require the multiple benefits of exercise or physical rehabilitation, the need for people getting into sports medicine and fitness-related careers will continue to grow.

Those who work in these fields are usually both eager and passionate in helping clients of all ages and athletic abilities to reach or recover their physical potential. It’s not unusual for them to be competitive athletes or have an athletic background themselves, which often results in feeling the need to maintain close proximity to the sports world or to avoid sitting down all day at a 9 to 5 office job.

Fitness and sports medicine professionals often work together, whether directly or indirectly. For example, let’s take a recreational soccer player recovering from knee surgery. After he or she finishes up physical therapy at a sports rehab clinic, the PT refers them to a personal trainer that specializes in human performance. The trainer then provides feedback to the PT on the clients progress, which the client and PT discuss during follow up visits.

Career Profiles

While some are clinical and others non-clinical, all the fitness and sports medicine careers listed below share a common thread: They involve improvement or restoration of physical ability/health through exercise and/or nutrition.

Athletic Trainer

Academic Requirements4-year bachelor's degree in athletic training or related discipline, such as exercise physiology or kinesiology. 2-year master's degree in athletic training programs are available, but a graduate degree is not required. Certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillation (AED).
Certifying or Licensing OrganizationNational Athletic Training Association (NATA) Board of Certification. Candidates are required to pass a the Board of Certification (BOC) exam to practice as an athletic trainer. Certain states have their own certification exams and require in-state licensure or registration to practice.
Employment Growth30% (much better than average) due to the prevalence of competitive sports on the recreational, youth, collegiate, amateur and professional levels.
Additional Information
Learn more about becoming an Athletic Trainer

Exercise Physiologist

Academic Requirements4-year bachelor's degree, usually in exercise science, kinesiology or related major for corporate wellness and possibly, clinical roles. Completing a 1-2 year master's program in exercise physiology usually required for obtaining research or clinical opportunities. 2-3 year exercise physiology PhD degree typically required for academic and independent research positions.
Certifying or Licensing OrganizationNo official certifying or licensing organization exist that regulate the practice of exercise physiology. However, the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offer Exercise Physiologist certifications that may be required by some employers.
Employment GrowthBetween 20 and 28 percent (average - better than average) due to increased research and interest in the effect of exercise, supplements and extremes of environment on the human body.
Additional Information
Learn more about becoming an Exercise Physiologist

Health Coach

Learn about becoming a Health Coach

Personal Trainer

Academic RequirementsDepending on the certifying organization, requirements can range from high school diploma/GED to a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university, other than passing the personal trainer certification exam. Certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillation (AED). Must complete a number of continuing education credits or units every 2 - 3 years depending on certification agency.
Certifying or Licensing OrganizationNumerous trainer certifying organizations exist, including: American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) American Council on Exercise (ACE) International Sports Science Association (ISSA) National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association (NESTA) National Federation of Professional Trainers (NFPT) National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Employment Growth24% (better than average) due to the increased understanding of the benefits of exercise in reducing risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and improvement in psychological well-being through enhanced body image.
Additional Information
Learn more about becoming a Personal Trainer

Sports Physical Therapist

Academic Requirements4-year bachelors degree followed by completion of a 3-year Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program and American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties (ABPTS) certification in Sports.
Certifying or Licensing OrganizationEach state has their own specific board certification requirements. Must pass state-administered national licensing exam. Individual states may require continuing education or may have in place other standards to maintain licensure.
Employment Growth39% (way better than average) due to aging population and subsequent injuries associated with exercise.
Additional Information
Learn more about becoming a Sports Physical Therapist

Sports Medicine Aide

Academic RequirementsUsually the only requirements are being either a high school or college student interested in pursuing a career in the sports medicine field.
Certifying or Licensing OrganizationNone
Employment GrowthNot available
Additional Information
Learn more about becoming a Sports Medicine Aide

Sports Dietitian

Learn about becoming a Sports Dietitian or check out a general overview of Nutrition & Dietetics jobs.

Sports Medicine Nurse

Learn about becoming a Sports Medicine Nurse

Strength & Conditioning Specialist

Academic Requirements4-year bachelor's degree in any subject is required to sit for the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification exam. Certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillation (AED) is also required. Must complete a number of continuing education credits every 2 years as defined by the NSCA.
Certifying or Licensing OrganizationNational Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
Employment GrowthData not available
Additional Information
Learn more about becoming a Strength Coach

Exercise Science vs. Sports Medicine

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The terms Exercise Science and Sports Medicine are appealing to many with a background in fitness or sports.

Much of this appeal has to do with the ability to parlay these personal interests into a career working with others who also share a passion for athletics/healthy lifestyle or helping people achieve/restore physical health.

Though related in some ways, these terms can pose some confusion from an education and career perspective – especially if you have yet to explore the difference.

The basic thing to remember is that, for the most part, a bachelor’s in exercise science can lead directly to a fitness-related occupation or indirectly (as a solid academic foundation) to professions in health care, sports medicine or academics that require further study.

So, What’s The Difference?

Exercise Science is an area of academics traditionally studied at the undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels, while Sports Medicine predominantly refers to an area of medical practice that various types of healthcare professionals can specialize in.

For example, you can earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in Exercise Science – then go on to physical therapy or medical school and eventually specialize in Sports Medicine. You cannot just go out and get a degree in sports medicine – you typically have to first become an athletic trainer (requires BS degree in AT), physical therapist (requires DPT degree), physician (requires MD or DO degree), nurse practitioner (requires MSN degree) or dietitian (requires nutrition science degree) in order to get into this field.

Know Where Your Degree Will Take You

Whether you’re currently a student or going to college for the first time, the decision of what to major in is among the more important choices you’ll make in life. It’s easy to use the fact that you’re in or going back to school as a cushion and trust that you’ll end up with a secure, well-paying career by virtue of having a degree in a subject you love or think is good.

However, with 1 in 5 graduates not being able to repay their student loan due to unemployed status or low-income jobs, it’s obvious this is not always the case. Furthermore, for those who are able to pay their school debt, many hold jobs not related to their degree or career interest.

Of course, the current economic climate does play a role, but only to a certain extent. The fact is there are some degrees that are truly poor investments if your goal is to immediately make a career out of that degree. Unfortunately this is painfully realized by many recent grads and the main reason why they eventually go back to school to earn a different degree that leads to a stable, in-demand professional career.

The fact is, most 4-year baccalaureate programs nowadays, including Exercise Science, require further education and training to become a health care professional.

Here is an example of the relatively few bachelor degrees that put you in a position to secure rewarding healthcare jobs right after graduation:

  • Athletic Training (job: Athletic Trainer)
  • Cardiovascular Technology (job: Cardiovascular Technologist)
  • Dental Hygiene (job: Dental Hygienist)
  • Dietetics (job: Dietitian)
  • Nursing (job: Registered Nurse)

The Bottom Line

Unless you’re planning on working as a fitness professional, such as a personal fitness trainer or exercise specialist, graduating with a baccalaureate in exercise science will not prepare you for a related job with immediate employment straight out of school, but rather further education in grad school – whether it’s a health professional program or for research/teaching.

You may find exceptions in areas like cardiac rehabilitation or corporate wellness, however these opportunities are few and far between – and even then there may be issues with job security, full-time employment and/or relatively low pay.

This article provides more information on the study of exercise science, including where it will and won’t get you and how it can be used as stepping stone to various career pathways.

Other Health Career Fields