Becoming an Exercise Physiologist: Job Description & Salary Info

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Learn about an exercise physiologist's job duties, salary and education requirements. Get straight talk about the pros and cons of an exercise physiology career.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming an Exercise Physiologist

If you think you'd enjoy helping people achieve their health and fitness goals, exercise physiology may be the career for you. Read on to learn about the pros and cons of this career and decide whether exercise physiology is the right field for you.

Pros of an Exercise Physiology Career
Help people recover from injury and improve their overall health*
Choose from a variety of work settings (hospitals, corporations, athletic teams, etc.)*
Potential for job flexibility (part time hours and flexible schedules are available)*
Learn skills that can be invaluable in your personal life (CPR, fitness, nutrition, etc.)*

Cons of an Exercise Physiology Career
Career preparation may take 4-7 years beyond high school, since a bachelor's degree is usually required and a master's degree is preferred*
Working evenings and weekends may be required*
May have to deal with medical emergencies that arise while patients are exercising*
Most jobs require employees to earn and maintain lifesaving certifications*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Salary.com.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

As an exercise physiologist, you'll use your technical expertise to develop exercise regimens that help people improve their health. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), exercise physiologists are trained to conduct fitness and health assessments that measure cardiovascular and lung function, body fat percentage, glucose tolerance and cholesterol levels. They use the results of these tests to prescribe individualized exercise plans that may include walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike.

Exercise physiologists may also demonstrate proper exercise techniques, supervise patients as they exercise and teach courses about diet and exercise. Physiologists who work with athletes typically help them optimize their training by monitoring their heart rates and ensuring proper hydration and nutrition. Some exercise physiologists are also responsible for the training and evaluation of group exercise instructors.

Career Options

Exercise physiologists may choose to work in clinical settings, such as hospitals, with patients who have ailments like heart disease, arthritis or emphysema. According to a 2010 survey by the Clinical Exercise Physiology Association (CEPA), 82% of clinical exercise physiologists spend the majority of their time working with cardiac patients. Helping patients regain their health can be rewarding, but working with high-risk patients is also challenging. Clinical exercise physiologists must monitor their patients closely and be prepared to intervene if a medical emergency occurs.

If you'd prefer to work with individuals who have moderate to high fitness levels, there are several other options in this field. Exercise physiologists can work in health clubs or corporate wellness programs, where they help clients or employees stay fit. Some exercise physiologists also work with athletes to help them prepare for competition.

Salary Info

According to Salary.com, the lowest-paid ten percent of exercise physiologists who were surveyed earned less than $37,000, while the highest-paid ten percent reported earning over $63,000 in 2015. This same survey reported a median annual salary of just under $49,000 for all exercise physiologists.

Exercise Physiology Job Requirements

Education, Certification and Licensure

The BLS reports that a bachelor's degree in a related field, like exercise science, is usually the minimum education requirement for jobs in exercise physiology. However, many employers prefer candidates who hold a master's degree. Most states do not require exercise physiologists to be licensed, but a few have current or pending legislation regarding licensure for this profession.

In addition to education, most exercise physiology jobs require basic CPR certification. If you're working with patients who have heart conditions or other illnesses, you may also need more specialized certifications, such as the Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) credential.

Job Skills

According to the BLS, exercise physiologists need good interpersonal skills so they can connect with and motivate their patients or clients, and they should be able to remain calm and respond quickly in emergency situations. Concentration and multi-tasking abilities are also valued, since exercise physiologists may supervise multiple patients at the same time.

Real Job Ads

In addition to education and life support certification, some employers prefer candidates who also have relevant experience and a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist certification from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Here are some job postings from April 2012 to give you a sense of what employers are looking for:

  • A hospital in Columbus, Ohio, is searching for a full-time exercise physiologist to work a flexible daytime shift in its cardiac rehab unit. The employer is seeking a candidate with 1-2 years of experience and a bachelor's degree in a related field, although a master's degree is preferred. CPR, ACLS and ACSM certifications are also preferred.
  • A hospital in Michigan is hiring an exercise physiologist to work in its cardiology unit. Candidates should have a relevant bachelor's degree and experience working in a cardiac rehab unit, as well as ACSM and ACLS certifications.
  • A government agency plans to hire exercise physiologists to work with service members and their families in New Mexico. Applicants should have a bachelor's degree and one year of related experience, or a master's degree.
  • A sports medicine clinic located in Georgia is looking to hire an experienced exercise physiologist to supervise its rehab program, as well as its programs for aquatic, group and individual fitness. In addition to experience, candidates should have a master's degree.

Standing Out in the Field

Exercise physiologists can also stand out by earning professional certifications in their field. The ACSM offers a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist certification for graduate degree holders, and the Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist credential is available to bachelor's degree holders. Both of these credentials require practical experience and appropriate lifesaving certifications. According to the CEPA's 2012 survey, 81% of clinical exercise physiologists held an ACSM clinical certification.

Career Alternatives

Physical Therapist

If you decide that exercise physiology isn't for you, there are other related jobs out there for you to consider. For example, if you're looking for a career with a higher salary, you might become a physical therapist. As of May 2011, physical therapists earned a median annual salary of nearly $80,000, according to the BLS. However, this profession has more stringent training and licensure requirements than exercise physiology. All states require licensure for physical therapists, and the BLS reports that a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree is required to work in the field.

Fitness Instructor

A career in fitness training and instruction can be a good option for individuals who don't want to go through the education and training required for exercise physiologists and who are willing to accept lower salaries. The BLS reports that fitness trainers usually need to earn certification, which rarely takes longer than two years. Fitness training credentials don't have any specific education requirements, but most people in this profession hold high school diplomas. As of May 2011, fitness trainers earned a median annual salary of just over $36,000, and this occupation is expected to add 60,400 jobs from 2010-2020, according to the BLS.

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