How to Get Started in a Career as an Exercise Physiologist

A curious irony has evolved over the past twenty years: Americans are more overweight and sedentary than ever before. Yet, at the same time, we are living longer, healthier lives and competing for only a handful of spots in ultra-endurance sports like the Hawaiian Iron Man triathlon, Leadville 100-mile foot race and the Eco-challenge adventure series. What gives? How is this possible?

The answer, of course, is that the American population has developed an unsatiable thirst for health and fitness knowledge. The advice found in magazines, fitness centers, hospitals and even the workplace usually comes from the same resources: trained exercise physiologists.

Exercise physiologists come in many flavors. While they all begin their education with a minimum of a four-year university degree, most continue on to graduate school, selecting one of five specialty areas: prevention/rehabilitation, human performance, biomechanics, athletic training or academic research in any of the previously mentioned specialties.

The prevention/rehabilitation tract deals with the area of cardiovascular disease. This includes heart disease, hypertension, diabetes (types I and II) and pulmonary disease. Exercise specialists in prevention/rehabilitation educate and train individuals that are either at risk for developing or have already developed symptoms of these diseases. Most major hospitals employ clinical exercise physiologists to monitor patients that have had heart attacks, coronary bypass surgery and uncontrolled diabetes or have other diseases that improve with physical activity. Exercise physiologists test patients upon entry to the program, write the exercise prescriptions, monitor exercise sessions and develop home exercise programs for individuals that are not candidates for traditional exercise programs.

The area of human performance has become very popular today; both with professional and recreational athletes. Exercise physiologists specializing in human performance educate and train athletes that are interested in improving their stamina, lowering performance times and decreasing recovery time following events. You will usually find these professionals at fitness facilities, universities and even commercially on the Internet.

Interested in improving your golf swing? Need a more power in your tennis serve? Then you’ll need to consult with a biomechanics specialist. These professionals are exercise physiologists who have a thorough understanding of the human body and how it moves during physical activity. Understanding physical forces, timing and how the nerves and muscles contribute to sport can result in significant improvements in your game. You’ll usually find these professionals at major universities and human performance laboratories.

Are you aching after your last workout? Do you think that you may have succumbed to an injury? Then exercise physiologists with an emphasis in athletic training may be able to help. These professionals are trained in the prevention and care of athletic injuries. Virtually all sports teams, from the YMCA to professional sports will usually have an athletic trainer in attendance, ready to administer aid for acute and chronic athletic injuries.

Finally, academic research provides students with advanced degrees the opportunity to investigate hypotheses, training regimens and other aspects that impact healthy and diseased exercise participants. Research positions nearly always require a Doctor of Philosophy degree from a major academic institution that specializes in one or more aspects of research. Contact the American College of Sports Medicine for a list of leading research universities.

Regardless of which specialty you choose, you’ll need to begin with a four-year degree from an accredited college or university. Many exercise physiologists begin with an undergraduate degree in physical education, but you may also begin your studies through other life science majors. For more information, please check with the admissions office at your local university.

Most successful exercise physiologists continue beyond undergraduate studies. Like other healthcare professionals such as nurses or physical therapists, a Master of Science degree will make you more competitive in the marketplace. Some institutions may not even consider you without one. The majority of graduate programs for exercise science require at least three semesters of coursework, followed by either comprehensive examinations or a written thesis. For a complete list of accredited graduate programs in exercise science, check with a career counselor at your local college or university.

Once you’ve completed your degree, it’s often helpful to acquire a professional certification by a nationally or internationally recognized organization such as the American College of Sports Medicine. The ACSM certifies professionals at several levels, depending on your specialty and the population that you wish to work with. These advanced certifications are very challenging but can often be completed concurrently with your university studies.

Finally, you’ll need experience. Most university programs include student intern programs as part of their curricula. Plan on spending a minimum of 2-4 semesters in a functioning program before graduation.

Today, Americans are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. With the advent of better diagnostic procedures and prescription drugs, those who choose to remain active will always depend on exercise professionals for sound, practical advice. A career in exercise science is a truly gratifying career choice that will not only insure you of an good income, but the chance to make a real difference in someone’s life.

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