Study Exercise & Fitness: Master's, PhD & Online Degree Info

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What will you learn in an exercise and fitness degree program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of a master's degree and PhD and potential careers.
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Exercise and Fitness Master's and Doctoral Degrees at a Glance

Degree programs in exercise and fitness are interdisciplinary in nature and involve the study of human psychological and physiological functioning. As a student in this field, you will learn about a variety of disciplines related to human movement science, including exercise physiology, sport and exercise psychology, biomechanics, sociology of physical activity and motor control. You will also learn about how to conduct research within these areas and how to design and implement exercise and wellness programs.

Graduates of this field are prepared for a variety of positions and potential careers, including teaching and conducting research at the university level, fitness director, allied health positions in laboratories and clinics, coaching, personal training and specialists in health and conditioning. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the job outlook is good for many of the careers related to this degree program. It is predicted that employment of postsecondary teachers will increase by 17% from 2010-2020, while employment of fitness trainers and instructors will increase by 24% from 2010-2020.

Master's PhD
Who is this degree for? Students interested in advanced study within the areas of exercise and wellness or those interested in pursuing a PhD Individuals interested in a career in research or academia
Common Career Paths (with approximate median annual salary) - Fitness center director ($76,000)*
- Fitness specialist ($21,000-$44,000)**
- Wellness consultant ($39,000-$115,000)**
- Coach ($18,000-$64,000)** - Physical education teacher ($25,000-$58,000)**
- Exercise physiologist (unavailable)
- Professor ($43,000-$143,000)**
- Research scientist ($40,000-$109,000)**
Time to Completion 2 years full-time 3-5 years full-time
Common Graduation Requirements - Research thesis
- Research seminar
- Comprehensive exam
- Research practicum
- Dissertation
- Comprehensive exam
Prerequisites - Bachelor's degree
- Undergraduate coursework in chemistry, biology, anatomy and physiology
- Master's degree
- Prior coursework in statistics, physics, chemistry, psychology and anatomy and physiology
Online Availability None found at this time None found at this time

Source: * ** (June 2012 figures, 10th-90th percentile).

Master's in Exercise and Fitness

Master's degrees in exercise and fitness can have varied program names. When searching for degree programs within this specialty, you can search for programs such as exercise science, exercise physiology, exercise and wellness, kinesiology, exercise and health science and exercise and sport science. Many of these degree programs provide you with the opportunity to choose specific concentration areas related to exercise and fitness, such as strength and conditioning, clinical exercise physiology/pathology, health promotion and physical activity, fitness and conditioning, biomechanics athletic training, physical education pedagogy and motor control and learning.

Depending on the specific degree program you choose and your area of concentration, you can learn about exercise and assessment and prescription for special populations or people with chronic diseases, scientific theory of resistance training, physiological effects of exercise, exercise leadership and research methodology. Many exercise and fitness degree programs also provide you with a thesis or non-thesis option. Students choosing the thesis option must conduct research in their area of concentration, produce a scholarly report and complete an oral exam, while the students choosing the non-thesis option will complete a written comprehensive exam and participate in a research seminar. Obtaining a master's degree will prepare you for many careers; however, teaching at the university level will require a doctorate.

Pros and Cons


  • Students are prepared for a variety of careers in numerous settings after graduation
  • Concentration options allow you to choose a specialization based on your own interests
  • Based on your career goals, you can choose a thesis or non-thesis option


  • Program admission is competitive
  • Getting a teaching job at the university level may be difficult without a PhD
  • Some schools have a limited number of teaching assistantships

Courses and Requirements

While enrolled in a master's degree program in exercise and fitness, you will take courses in research and statistical methods, human anatomy and physiology, biomechanics and human motor control. You may also take several seminar courses and participate in an independent study course. Depending on your degree program, you may also be required to complete a research or thesis project and pass a comprehensive exam.

Examples of courses you might take at the master's level:

  • Statistical methods for social sciences
  • Advanced physiology of exercise
  • Assessment of physiological functions of exercise
  • Advanced topics in exercise physiology
  • Motor development
  • Exercise psychology

Online Course Info

Online learning is typically not offered for master's degree programs related to exercise and fitness. If online availability is important to you, you can check the class schedules of a variety of programs or contact the individual schools to see if they offer classes online.

Stand Out with This Degree

If you know what you want to do with your exercise and fitness degree, you can target skills that will help you to stand out in the job market. For example, if exercise physiology interests you and you would like to pursue a career as an exercise physiologist, you can choose clinical exercise physiology or athletic training as your areas of concentration. If you know that you would like to continue your education in a PhD program, or work as a researcher or professor, you may want to complete a master's thesis.

You may also want to consider working as a teaching assistant, particularly if you would like to pursue a teaching career. This will provide you with the opportunity to undertake teaching responsibilities while under the guidance and supervision of a faculty member. The experience gained as a teaching assistant may help you stand out and make yourself more marketable to community colleges and universities.

PhD in Exercise and Fitness

In a similar manner to master's degree programs in exercise and fitness, PhD programs also have varied degree names. Exercise science, exercise physiology, kinesiology, health and exercise science and human movement science are titles of several degree programs you can consider when conducting your search. You will also be able to choose from many specializations within these degree programs. Areas of emphasis that you can choose from include applied physiology, exercise physiology, nutrition, health aspects of physical activity, motor control and rehabilitation and health and physical activity behavior.

Although the titles of each degree program may vary, they have similar requirements for graduation. A dissertation, research practicum, research cognate and comprehensive exams are requirements for the majority of PhD programs related to exercise and fitness. You may also be required to complete graduate seminars, laboratory rotations, student presentations, directed teaching experiences and directed research projects. Enrollment into PhD programs is very competitive, and some schools may want applicants to have some experience in the field.

Pros and Cons


  • It's a flexible degree that allows you to pursue many different career fields (e.g. teaching, research, clinical settings)
  • Students can customize their education by choosing areas of concentration based on individual career goals and interests
  • Research-oriented programs prepare you for research careers in exercise and fitness


  • PhD programs may take up to five years to complete
  • Admission to a program can be competitive and often includes interviews and acceptance by a faculty mentor
  • Students without a strong background in science may not be competitive applicants

Courses and Requirements

As a student in this degree program, you may take courses in research design, exercise science, statistical methods, health promotion, psychology, human nutrition, epidemiology and physiology. Courses will typically vary and are often dependent on your individual major and areas of specialization. You will also be required to participate in a research project, complete a dissertation and pass a comprehensive exams.

Examples of courses you might take at the doctorate level:

  • Neuromuscular and metabolic response to exercise
  • Foundations of health promotion
  • Exercise nutrition
  • Exercise stress testing and prescription
  • Endocrine responses to exercise

Online Course Info

It is difficult to find schools that offer online PhD programs in exercise and fitness. If you are considering a career in research or teaching exercise and fitness, you will benefit from the on-campus resources that many schools offer to students.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

An important component of your work as a PhD student is becoming actively involved in your research and laying the groundwork for a future career as a researcher or professor. Here are some ways to stand out:

  • Seek opportunities for publication and presenting your research - many degree programs in exercise and fitness provide students with the opportunity to present their findings to other students and departmental faculty. To make yourself stand out to potential employers, you can seek opportunities to present your research at national and international conferences and work on being published in peer-reviewed journals. By working as a research assistant and conducting research with a faculty member, you can increase your chances of having your name published in scholarly publications.
  • Find additional training opportunities. For example, you can expand on your expertise and knowledge by seeking out postdoctoral training programs. By becoming a postdoctoral research fellow or assistant, you can receive advanced training in your area of emphasis and have additional opportunities to publish your work in journals. Many postdoctoral students are able to obtain faculty positions following their training.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Northcentral University

    Program Options

      • Ed.D. - Sports Management
      • PhD in Education - Sports Management
  • Lexington, KY

    University of Kentucky

  • Bloomington, IN

    Indiana University

  • Tuscaloosa, AL

    The University of Alabama

  • Toledo, OH

    University of Toledo

  • Greensboro, NC

    University of North Carolina at Greensboro

  • Champaign, IL

    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

  • Chicago, IL

    University of Illinois at Chicago

  • Buffalo, NY

    University at Buffalo

Featured Schools

Northcentral University

  • Ed.D. - Sports Management
  • PhD in Education - Sports Management

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