What Is Exercise Physiology? 

By Published On: May 26, 2021


If you are looking for a career that lets you use your understanding of exercise and physical activity to improve people’s health, then exercise physiology might be the one for you.

This diverse field is an essential part of healthcare and disease prevention. Exercise physiology involves working with patients with a wide range of conditions, helping to improve their quality of life through exercise.

Exercise physiologists can work in nonclinical settings, too. In this case, they may be supporting people in losing weight, improving their fitness, or optimizing their physical health.

As the importance of preventative medicine becomes ever clearer, careers in exercise physiology are becoming more popular. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts employment opportunities in this sector will grow by 11% between 2019 and 2029. That is much faster growth than most other occupations.

The rosy career outlook isn’t the only reason to be tempted by an exercise physiology degree. It is a fascinating area with plenty of opportunities to have a real impact on people’s health. With demand increasing and the importance of the field growing, a career in exercise physiology promises to be a rewarding one.

What Does an Exercise Physiologist Do?

Many exercise physiologists work in healthcare settings, such as hospitals and rehabilitation clinics. In these settings, they will generally be working with patients who have long-term conditions, including heart disease, lung disease, cancer, or issues with bones or muscles.

Aspiring exercise physiologists will need to have top interpersonal skills and be prepared to complete continuing education courses.

Exercise Physiologist Responsibilities

Exercise physiologists who specialize in these areas will be part of a team of healthcare professionals working to improve their patients’ health and quality of life. They will work closely with doctors, therapists, and other specialists to design treatment plans.

They will carry out tests and evaluations to determine the patient’s needs and then develop individualized plans to meet these needs. They will also work with patients to educate them on the role of exercise in health and disease prevention.

Other exercise physiologists work in nonclinical settings, such as fitness centers, professional or college sports teams, and corporate wellness programs. Many choose to concentrate on helping athletes prevent injury and achieve their training goals.

Exercise physiologists may also:

  • Develop a physical exercise regimen
  • Administer fitness and stress tests
  • Help treat chronic diseases
  • Advise human performance

Exercise physiology is a different career path from a personal trainer or athletic trainer, however. It is one of the allied health professions and requires at least a bachelor’s degree. While some of the skills and knowledge of these professions may overlap, physical fitness trainers typically don’t work in clinical settings or with people who are ill.

How Do You Become an Exercise Physiologist?

Careers in this sector start with an exercise physiology degree or a degree in a related field, such as exercise science or kinesiology. These are usually four-year programs, but many people will go onto do further studies, such as a master’s in exercise physiology or a master’s in exercise science.

Currently, most states don’t require exercise physiologists to hold a license. But employers will generally expect applicants to be certified. Certification demonstrates that you have the necessary knowledge and skill to take on an exercise physiologist job.

One of the most respected certifications is from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). To qualify, you will first need either a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or 21 semester hours of exercise science coursework. You will need a CPR or AED certification, too. Concordia University Chicago’s Master of Science in Applied Exercise Science, Exercise Physiology concentration, fulfills ACSM requirements to sit for the exam.

You will also need to pass the ACSM-EP exam to become an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist® (ASCM-EP). Choosing a degree program designed to help you pass this exam is a good first step.

Once qualified, you can choose to take your exercise physiology career in several different directions. Potential career paths include:


The link between heart disease and exercise is well-known. Exercise physiologists play a crucial role in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular diseases. Those aiming for this specialty will usually have a master’s degree. They might work in a hospital or a cardiac rehab center.

Cardiac exercise physiologists carry out tests and monitor patients to assist with diagnosis and determining a treatment plan. They might administer stress tests, interpret ECG results, devise fitness tests, and monitor blood pressure and oxygen levels.


If you prefer to work with athletes, you could develop a career working at a sports center, university, or professional sports team. You would work with individual athletes to understand their unique physiology and develop training plans and exercise programs to help them meet their goals and prevent injury.

Corporate Wellness

Larger companies and government agencies are increasingly in need of qualified professionals to develop health and fitness programs for their employees. As an exercise physiologist, your expertise in using physical activity to prevent and treat disease will be of great benefit in a corporate wellness role.

Clinical Exercise Physiologist

For those who prefer to deepen their knowledge and understanding, there is the opportunity to focus your career on clinical exercise physiology. You might work at a university or in the research department of a larger hospital.

A registered clinical exercise physiologist will devise tests and gather data to advance knowledge of exercise physiology and the impact of movement on human health.

Rehabilitation and Therapy

Exercise physiologists also work with patients who are experiencing musculoskeletal issues or recovering from injuries. They might work in a physical therapy or occupational therapy practice, for example.

Using their knowledge of movement and exercise, physiologists develop training and treatment plans suited to the needs of individual patients.

What Does an Exercise Physiologist Earn?

The salary you can expect as a certified exercise physiologist varies depending on location and will also relate to the specialism you choose.

As a guideline, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the median salary of exercise physiologists in 2021 was as follows:

  • Government: $81,890
  • Hospitals; $47,970
  • Offices of physicians: $47,270
  • Offices of physical, occupational, and speech therapists, and audiologists: $47,000

Most exercise physiologists work full–time, and 62% are self-employed. The projected job outlook growth for 2021 – 2031 is a promising 9%.

Final Thoughts

Exercise physiology is a rewarding career. It allows you to have a direct impact on improving people’s health and quality of life.

With the career market for exercise physiologists growing fast, it is an excellent time to consider becoming qualified. You can expect engaging and varied work, as well as a decent salary. Most importantly, you can use your passion for exercise in a role that supports others.

Learn more about the Exercise Physiology concentration within the Master of Science of Applied Exercise Science at Concordia University Chicago.

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