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Careers in Exercise Science

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for fitness trainers, instructors, and other wellness professionals is expected to grow.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, these are some career opportunities available to fitness professionals:


An exercise physiologist studies the acute and chronic physiological responses and adaptations resulting from physical activity. They can apply this knowledge to improve or maintain health, fitness, or exercise and sport performance. Traditionally, these specialists worked only with athletes, however, today they also work and study in commercial, clinical and workplace settings.

At a minimum, an undergraduate degree is required and it is also recommended to obtain a recognized certification from the American College of Sports Medicine or other recognized, applicable certifications. Check out SAU's graduate program in Exercise Physiology


Clinical exercise physiologists, nurses, physical therapists, and respiratory therapists are most often employed in cardiopulmonary rehabilitation programs. These clinicians are responsible for providing exercise education regarding disease management, lifestyle modification, and psychosocial support to patients with cardiac and/or pulmonary disease. An undergraduate degree in one or more of the disciplines is required.


Researchers conduct studies from either a basic or applied perspective. Basic researchers usually conduct studies with a focus on the cellular and molecular levels, such as how organ systems work, adapt, or respond to various factors. Applied researchers usually conduct studies with a focus on more practical questions, such as ways to increase athletic performance or how to improve health and reduce disease.

Either career requires a master's degree or PhD, and the SAU Master of Science in Exercise Physiology program can help you attain that level of knowledge.


A Personal Trainer typically works one-on-one with an individual and is paid by the hour or per session. This career requires a strong background in anatomy and kinesiology because a large part of the job deals with muscular strength and endurance training.

At least an undergraduate degree and certification as a fitness instructor is recommended to work as a personal trainer.


Sport teams at the high school, college, and professional levels employ strength and conditioning coaches. Their role is to develop and supervise specific conditioning programs to increase agility, strength, endurance, flexibility, and power.

These positions usually require a master's degree and certification by the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association).


Programs of this type are common in the workplace, especially in large corporation and hospital settings. Along with conducting exercise programs and supervising all fitness staff, the employee fitness director may also be trained as a wellness specialist to provide broad-based health promotion and wellness education programs.

An undergraduate degree is typically required to work with special population clients. It's also recommended to obtain a recognized certification such as the ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) Health Fitness Instructor.


An instructor who leads exercise sessions for a group of participants may have individuals with different fitness levels, medical concerns and ages; or the group may be homogeneous. Examples of group exercise instruction include land- or water- based general classes, dance/step aerobics, chair aerobics, and cycling. Employment occurs in a variety of settings including commercial fitness centers, employee fitness programs, and/or hospitals.

An undergraduate degree in a health-related field and a recognized certification is a minimal requirement in this field.

Exercise Science is your 'jumping off point'

A degree in Exercise Science can be used as a pre-professional degree in the pursuit of the following:


A Physical Therapist helps people to recover from injuries or diseases of the muscles, joints, nerves or bones. The Occupational Therapist works more with fine motor skills and dexterity. Both of these specialists use various physical modalities and exercise, focusing on movement dysfunction. There are many specialization areas, such as cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, sports medicine, and biomechanics. Two to three years following an undergraduate degree after formal training, one must pass a national examination to become a licensed physical therapist.

SAU offers doctoral programs in both PT and OT, which are among the top programs in the country.


A chiropractor is a healthcare professional that emphasizes diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system, especially the spine, under the hypothesis that these disorders affect general health via the nervous system. A minimum of four years after a basic college degree.


A medical doctor is a highly trained professional in the art and science of the diagnosis and treatment of disease and the maintenance of health. A minimum of four years after an undergraduate degree is required.


Physician Assistants are health care professionals licensed to practice medicine under the supervision of physicians. Physician assistants are referred to as physician extenders and midlevel practitioners. Their practice includes all elements of patient care including taking medical histories, completing examinations, ordering diagnostic tests, and providing medical care including the prescription of medications.
Learn more about the Master of Physician Assistant Studies program at St. Ambrose


Athletic Trainers (ATs) are health care professionals who collaborate with physicians. The services provided by ATs comprise prevention, emergency care, clinical diagnosis, therapeutic intervention and rehabilitation of injuries and medical conditions.


These specialists work with many different professionals to improve the performance of workers by enhancing their health and occupational abilities, prevention or rehabilitation of workplace injuries, and redesigning the work environment to fit the worker. An advanced degree beyond the undergraduate level is typically required, and it is helpful to be certified by the Board of Certification in Professional Ergonomics.

How do you know that attaining a degree in exercise science is right for you? Ask yourself a few of these questions:

1) Am I interested in and of the specialty areas, career opportunity of fields of student mentioned above?

2) Have you enjoyed classes in high school or college such as physical fitness, biology, health and wellness, and nutrition?

3) Do you enjoy reading health and wellness magazines' or journals?

4) Do you enjoy helping and working with people?

5) Do you have an interest in enhancing health and/or sports performance?

6) Do you get excited about working in exercise settings?

7) Where do you see yourself in five years?

8) Are you willing to commit to the necessary education, academic training and professional preparation that are required?

9) Will you enjoy taking the courses required?

10) Do I participate in and enjoy exercise?

If you answered yes to these questions, contact the Department of Kinesiology to talk to an advisor! Get the education, get certified and get started!

Citation: Excerpts taken from "Careers in Sports Medicine and Exercise Science" American College of Sports Medicine.