Fitness & Exercise Degrees: Associate, Bachelor's & Online Course Info

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What will you learn in a fitness and exercise degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of associate's and bachelor's degrees and potential careers.
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Study Fitness and Exercise: Degrees at a Glance

Fitness and exercise degree programs can help prepare you for careers in fields like personal fitness, athletic training and coaching. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts that careers in these fields will see faster-than-average employment growth from 2010 to 2020. Although job growth is likely to be strong, pay is relatively low.

Fitness trainers and exercise instructors don't usually need a degree - experience and/or certification are usually enough to qualify for jobs. However, an associate's degree can help you prepare for certification and give you an edge on the job market. Athletic trainers, as well as high school and college coaches, may need a bachelor's degree, certification and/or state licensure. Keep reading to find out if an associate's or bachelor's degree in fitness or exercise science is right for your career goals.

Associate's Bachelor's
Who is this degree for? Individuals who want to work as personal trainers; those planning to continue their education at a 4-year institution Those who want to become school athletic coaches or athletic trainers; students who want to continue on to earn a graduate degree
Common Career Paths (with approx. median annual salary) - Fitness trainers and instructors ($31,000 - an associate's degree is helpful, but not required)* Same as for associate's degree holders, along with the following:
- Athletic trainers ($42,000 - state licensure or certification is usually required)*
- Recreation workers ($22,000)*
- Coaches and scouts ($28,000 - certification is often required for high school and college coaches, and some coaching positions don't require a degree)*
Time to Completion Usually 2 years full-time Typically 4 years full-time
Prerequisites - High school diploma or GED- Same as for the associate's degree
Online Availability YesYes

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011).

Associate's Degree in Fitness and Exercise

Many colleges and universities offer associate's degree programs in fitness and exercise or exercise science. These programs help you prepare for entry-level positions in fields like fitness training and athletic coaching. Most associate's degree programs in exercise science help you qualify to earn national certification in personal training, and you may also be able to transfer into a 4-year degree program upon completion. Students typically learn about biological science, fitness training techniques and business administration in exercise science associate's degree programs.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Earning an associate's degree in exercise science may improve your career prospects as a fitness trainer
  • You'll be prepared to earn a personal training certification, which can enhance your employability
  • In an exercise science associate's degree program, you'll learn techniques that you can use to keep yourself and your family healthy

Cons

  • Some entry-level positions require only a high school diploma and/or certification, so a degree is unnecessary
  • You can sit for most personal training certification exams without earning an associate's degree
  • This degree won't qualify you for most high school and college coaching jobs - a bachelor's degree is usually required

Courses and Requirements

In an associate's degree program, you'll take liberal arts courses such as mathematics, English and science. Most programs also give you a basic foundation in computer science and business administration, which will be helpful if you plan to run your own personal training business or go into management. In addition to your liberal arts and fitness training coursework, you may also be required to complete a supervised internship to learn hands-on skills in your chosen field. Your fitness training coursework may include the following topics:

  • Personal and community health
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Fundamentals of personal training
  • Fitness assessments

Online Degree Options

Many colleges and universities offer 2-year programs for fitness or personal training online. They offer the same courses that on-campus programs do, but you are able to earn your degree without going to formal classes. You may still complete a supervised internship if your program requires it, and you'll still qualify to sit for personal training certification exams if your program is properly accredited.

Stand Out with This Degree

Although it is not legally required, many employers prefer to hire personal trainers who are certified. Many different organizations offer certifications, so check the National Commission for Certifying Agencies to see which ones are accredited. A few examples of accredited certifying organizations include the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American College of Sports Medicine. Holding a CPR certification can also help you stand out. Since some fitness trainers are eventually promoted to management positions and others go into business for themselves, it may be helpful to take business courses such as marketing, management and bookkeeping, even if your program doesn't require them.

Bachelor's Degree in Fitness and Exercise

Bachelor's degree programs in exercise science or health fitness are usually geared toward those who wish to advance their fitness training careers, become athletic trainers or continue on to graduate degree programs in areas like public health or physical therapy. It's important to research the program you're interested in to be sure that it's appropriate for your career goals. Most programs require you to take both theoretical and practical exercise science courses, as well as the liberal arts classes that are standard for bachelor's degree programs.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • A bachelor's degree will expand the career options available to you, and it may help you advance your fitness training career
  • You may meet the educational qualifications for high school and college coaching jobs, although certification and/or licensure may be required as well
  • You may qualify to enter graduate degree programs in fields that pay much higher salaries (physical therapy, physician assisting, etc.)

Cons

  • You don't need a bachelor's degree to work as a personal trainer
  • A growing number of athletic trainers have graduate degrees, so you may eventually need to pursue a higher degree if you go into this field
  • You'll have to take many liberal arts courses that aren't related to fitness training

Courses and Requirements

Courses vary depending on the exact type of program you choose. However, all bachelor's degree programs require you to complete general education courses in fields ranging from communication to social science. The core courses you take for your major may include the following:

  • Clinical exercise physiology
  • Principles of epidemiology
  • Stress management

Electives usually must be approved by your advisor, and they may include courses in aging or an exercise specialty. Additionally, many programs require an internship, and some prepare you to sit for national athletic trainer certification exams.

Online Degree Options

Online bachelor's degrees in health and fitness are available, but they are typically designed for students who want to advance their careers in the personal training industry, not those who want to go on to earn graduate degrees. They may offer specializations in either fitness training techniques or personal training business management, and an internship is required in some cases.

Stand Out with This Degree

Some schools require athletic trainers and coaches to teach. This means that, if you're hoping to work in either of these professions, you can expand your career options by earning a teaching certification while you're in school. Since qualifying for a teaching certificate requires a substantial expenditure of time and effort, though, you should carefully consider whether or not you would enjoy working with students. If you want to work in the fitness training industry, simply earning a bachelor's degree will help you stand out, according to the BLS.

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