An exercise physiologist is a healthcare professional who specializes in human biomechanical movement and develops exercise plans for patients based on those patients' individual responses to physical stressors and activities. In other words, it's the exercise physiologist's job to get people moving in order to improve their health in a variety of areas, including body composition, cardiac function, respiratory performance, muscular strength and endurance, and flexibility.
These professionals are employed by a variety of organizations, including hospitals, fitness facilities, military training programs, rehabilitation centers, and athletic training programs for collegiate and professional sports teams.
There are two types of exercise physiologist: applied and clinical. Applied exercise physiologists are the professionals you'll find training athletes, both amateur and professional, to maximize their skills, performance, and potential. On the clinical side, you will find the men and women who work in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and clinics (hence the name). They assess patients' well-being and plan exercise programs for those who need to improve their health, such as morbidly obese patients, the elderly, or those with chronic illnesses, including heart disease.
An exercise physiologist's main duty is to improve an individual's overall health and well-being. He or she does this by developing a targeted fitness plan tailored to the patient's needs. For example, a program might focus on flexibility, strength, endurance, or overall physical fitness — it all depends on where the patient most needs to improve. Some exercises target several problem areas at once. Exercise physiologists with athletic teams also design training regimens for athletes to help them meet their strength, conditioning, weight loss, and performance goals. You might think of these plans like prescriptions, or super-important homework.
In order to design these customized, potentially life-saving homework assignments, exercise physiologists can carry out an array of tasks on an average day at work, each dependent on the needs of the patients they are currently treating. In broader terms, these responsibilities may include:
You'll notice there's a lot of analyzing, assessing, and interpreting happening here. That's because exercise physiologists are driven by data. They use the information they collect from their investigations, observations, and tests to best address each and every patient's individual needs. A large part of an exercise physiologist's job is education, too, in the form of explaining why and how an exercise program delivers what it delivers.
A typical day for an exercise physiologist might include seeing multiple patients, analyzing an array of test results, and completing paperwork for employers and insurance companies. When they're not making phone calls or pushing paper, these professionals spend most of the day on their feet. Most exercise physiologists are expected to keep up with new research and exciting developments in the field, too.
The majority of exercise physiologists are employed full-time and work around 40 hours per week. While some of these hours may be spent in an office, a great deal of them will be spent in some sort of fitness-friendly facility that will allow the exercise physiologist and his or her patients to engage in physical activity.
Just like any other job, there are certain skills that all good exercise physiologists should have. For starters, they need solid interpersonal skills. These are essential for communicating not only with patients, but also with other medical professionals and patients' families. Since much of what an exercise physiologist does is dictated by analyzing and interpreting data, strong critical thinking and decision-making skills are also important. Being detail oriented is essential for the very same reason.
As an increasing number of hospitals and physicians promote exercise and preventative medicine as means of improving one's well-being, the field of exercise physiology continues to grow. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook, job growth for exercise physiologists is faster than average, with employment opportunities expected to rise 13 percent by 2026.
In the healthcare food chain, exercise physiologists aren't exactly plankton, but they're definitely on the lower end of the spectrum in terms of power and influence, which means — aside from supervisors — they take orders from someone higher up in the ranks. What being an exercise physiologist lacks in clout and celebrity, however, it makes up for in job stability and satisfaction, including the incredible power to help people hurt less and achieve more. A career as an exercise physiologist can also serve as the starting point for other careers in healthcare, including physical therapy.
Training And Education Requirements
For entry-level jobs as an exercise physiologist, a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology or a related field, such as kinesiology or exercise science, is required. More advanced positions, such as those in managerial roles, generally require a master's degree. A Ph.D. is only required if one wants to focus on lab research. As an exercise physiology major, a student can expect to take classes in a variety of disciplines, such as biomechanics, exercise metabolism, kinesiology, cardiac rehabilitation, and statistics. Internships are an excellent way to get hands-on experience in the field, too.
Because all it takes is a college degree to enter the field of exercise physiology, the competition for jobs is tight. One way that students set themselves apart from the pack is to specialize in a specific area of study, such as sports nutrition, for example. Earning a certification is another way to stand out, and a student who's interested in one day becoming certified by the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) should take that into account when designing his or her class schedule.
According to the ASEP, in order to take the Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC) exam, a student must first be a current member of ASEP and have a college degree with a major in exercise physiology, kinesiology, exercise science, sport science, human performance, or a related field.
Additionally, a student interested in taking the test must present an official transcript that indicates that he or she passed seven of the nine following college classes with a grade of "C" or better:
If a student's college or university's exercise physiology program is ASEP accredited, then he or she will have taken the required coursework to sit the EPC exam during the course of earning a degree.
Salary And Wages
According to the United States Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary of an exercise physiologist is $49,090. Most of these professionals are self-employed. Hospitals employ the second largest percentage. Exercise physiologists employed by the federal government tend to make significantly more money than the national average, while those employed by the offices of other healthcare practitioners make less money per year on average.
These average salaries vary from state to state. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the United States' most well-paid exercise physiologists are in California, New York, Connecticut, Minnesota, and Arizona. Exercise physiologists in California make more than double the national average annual salary.
Most exercise physiologists receive medical and dental insurance. Over half get vision coverage, too. Approximately 1 in 5 receive no benefits.
In most states, exercise physiologists aren't required to hold any form of professional certification or license. That said, there are a variety of reasons why someone may choose to earn a board certification in this field, such as:
In order to become a board-certified exercise physiologist by the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP), a candidate must pass the examination briefly described above with regard to college coursework. The Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC) exam assesses both practical skills and academic knowledge in the core discipline and a variety of narrower areas, including cardiac rehabilitation, exercise metabolism and regulation, kinesiology, research, sports biomechanics, sports nutrition, and environmental exercise physiology.
Board certification is also offered by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). In fact, the ACSM offers three different tiers of credential, distinguished from one another primarily by the candidate's completed level of education:
While some employers may not require ASEP or ACSM certification, almost all require that exercise physiologists hold basic or advanced life support certification, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training.
In order to improve their knowledge base, experience, and employment opportunities, many exercise physiologists choose to join a variety of professional societies and organizations, including:
Generally speaking, it's expected that most exercise physiologists will join professional organizations and take continuing education classes through their entire career in order to enhance their expertise and deepen their engagement in this fast-growing field.