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

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What will you learn in an exercise physiology program? Read about degree requirements, the pros and cons of master's and Ph.D. programs, and potential careers.
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Exercise Physiology: Master's Degree and Ph.D. Information

Exercise physiology, a subdiscipline of kinesiology, addresses short-term biological responses to physical activity as well as adaptation to conditioning over a period of time. Exercise physiologists are health care providers who offer services that promote health and wellness, prevent illness and disability, and improve athletic performance. As an exercise physiologist, you might work in a clinical or sports program or go into private practice.

Master's Ph.D.
Who is this training for? Individuals interested in practitioner positions Those interested in academic, research or consulting careers
Common Career Paths (with approximate salary) - Exercise physiologist ($45,000 - with certification and 2-4 years of experience)*
- Head athletic trainer, university ($53,000 - with related master's, athletic trainer certification and 5 years of experience)*
- Wellness program manager ($74,000 - bachelor's and 7 years of experience)*
- Fitness center director ($77,000 - bachelor's and 5 years of experience)*
- Postsecondary fitness studies teacher ($64,000)**
- Postsecondary health specialty teacher ($99,000)**
- Exercise physiology consultant (salary unavailable)
Time to Completion 1-2 years full time
4-5 years full time
Common Graduation Requirements - Can range from 35-60 credits, depending on school and student background
- Internship
- Might require thesis
- 60-80 credits
- Oral and comprehensive examinations
- Teaching or research assistant responsibilities
- Dissertation
Prerequisites Bachelor's degree
Bachelor's or master's degree
Online Availability Related online programs available Rare to non-existent

Source: * (2012 median salary), **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 annual mean wage).

Master's Degrees in Exercise Physiology

As a master's candidate, you'll study biological and biochemical processes associated with exercise. Your master's program might emphasize working with persons combating diabetes, obesity or cardiovascular disease; people engaging in extensive fitness or athletic training for health maintenance or increased physical performance; or persons utilizing exercise for its therapeutic benefits. You might learn to assess physiological condition, body composition, fitness, strength and flexibility, and resting metabolic rate in common laboratory facilities or special centers, such as those for cardiovascular or respiratory therapy.

Pros and Cons


  • Increasing emphasis on wellness and disease prevention, plus the aging of the population, could lead to growing opportunities
  • Services are needed in all areas of the country
  • A range of employment venues is possible
  • Some courses may be transferable to doctoral or other graduate programs in the health professions


  • You might need to explain your qualifications to prospective employers to differentiate yourself from a fitness instructor or personal or athletic trainer
  • Competition could come from candidates with similar training in physical therapy, kinesiology, athletic training or sports medicine-related fields
  • Related career options like physical therapy may also be in high demand and offer more upward salary mobility

Courses and Requirements

Master's programs often include coursework in biology, math, anatomy, biomechanics, chemistry and physics. Some schools offer thesis or non-thesis options, and internships are frequently required. Other courses in an exercise physiology master's program might include:

  • Research processes in athletic training and exercise physiology
  • Cardiorespiratory function
  • Energy metabolism and body composition
  • Exercise testing
  • Muscle function and exercise
  • Physiology of aging
  • Nutrition for fitness

Online Class Options

The nature of this field makes online study hard to find, but some related programs are available. Distance education programs in exercise science or kinesiology with an emphasis in exercise physiology might be most appropriate for students already working in the field since they might be able to access necessary exercise equipment at their work site.

Standing Out with This Degree

Choosing a program that's accredited by the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) or hosted by a school of medicine could offer beneficial networking, training and research opportunities. You also might look for a school that offers services to the public, providing hands-on opportunities for exercise physiology students. Additionally, you might seek ASEP's Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC) designation or other certifications and registrations offered through organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine.

Ph.D.s Covering Exercise Physiology

Doctoral training could prepare you for a research or academic career. A Ph.D. program might provide holistic and systematic training on the body's biological, biochemical and molecular-level processes and how they affect fitness or disease management goals. Candidates with organic and biochemistry backgrounds might be given preference for these programs.

As a Ph.D. candidate, you might participate in coursework, formal research in your mentor's laboratory, journal clubs or seminars. Students often conduct public presentations of their research data. You also might learn about syllabus and lecture development to prepare for a teaching career.

Pros and Cons


  • Doctoral study can provide an opportunity to become an expert in a niche field
  • Strong performance could lead to an academic career
  • Graduates also might have options in industrial or clinical settings


  • The multi-year time commitment can lead to reduced income during studies
  • Failure to identify and prepare for an emerging-demand area in this field could make you less competitive
  • Related academic fields, like biology, chemistry or physics, can be more lucrative*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011 annual mean wage).

Courses and Requirements

Students might complete core courses in nutrition, physiology and testing. You'll also develop research competencies using techniques specific to the field and learn about advanced statistical methods. Some programs mandate that Ph.D. candidates complete a minor, and most require that they take qualifying examinations and develop a dissertation. Students often participate in faculty research activities or internships while conducting their own research under the guidance of a mentor.

Doctoral candidates might take courses like these:

  • Cellular exercise physiology
  • Advanced nutrition for health and human performance
  • Cardiovascular programming and testing
  • Neurophysiology in exercise science
  • Measurement and psychometric theory
  • Research methods in exercise and sport sciences

Online Courses

Completely online Ph.D. programs in this field are rare to non-existent because of research and facility requirements. You might be able to take some courses at the master's level or complete a related degree online and then transfer some or all of your credits to a doctoral program.

Getting Ahead with This Degree

In a research-oriented Ph.D. program, the quality of laboratories and other facilities can be very important. Labs supporting vascular health, biochemistry, behavioral science, motor control, environmental physiology, strength or exercise testing might be available. You also might look for specialization opportunities that can make you more competitive.

As a Ph.D. candidate, you might participate in ongoing research projects or obtain funding from an organization like ASEP to do your own work. Contributing to publications in the field could help you stand out.

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