What is an Exercise Physiology Degree?

Exercise physiology is a specialization within the field of kinesiology. It is focused on the human body’s response and adaptation to physical activity.

Exercise physiologists analyze their clients’ fitness to help them improve their health, maintain good health, or achieve athletic performance goals. They administer exercise stress tests, paying particular attention to heart and lung strength, and then design appropriate fitness plans.

Students of exercise physiology study anatomy and physiology, anatomical and mechanical kinesiology, cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation, exercise prescription, and nutrition. In less technical terms, they learn how to help people live their longest, best life possible.

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Exercise Physiology – Three to Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, degree programs in exercise physiology focus on developing competencies in three primary areas:

  • the physiological responses to exercise
  • how anatomy affects exercise performance
  • how to design exercise programs to meet various objectives, such as lowering body fat and increasing muscle, strength, power, and endurance

With this knowledge students are well equipped to continue their studies in graduate school or to seek employment in the field.

Some schools structure their curriculum around the requirements to obtain the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification, the most respected certification in exercise science.

Here is a snapshot of courses typically required for the major in exercise physiology:

  • Human Anatomy – a study of the structure and functions of the body, with emphasis on histology (the microscopic structure of tissues) and the skin, skeletal, and nervous systems
  • Biokinetics and Conditioning – testing, designing, and implementing a personal physical fitness program that includes cardiorespiratory endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, and body composition
  • Introduction to Exercise Science and Sport Studies – introduction to the exercise science profession, including the objectives, structure, history, philosophy, and biological aspects of physical education and their applications in the field
  • Adult Fitness – an overview of the fitness industry that stresses fitness testing and prescriptive fitness programs; the role of fitness centers in the corporate / community structure
  • Human Development and Motor Learning – a study of human development and motor learning throughout the life cycle, with emphasis on physical growth, the effects of exercise, fundamental motor patterns, and developmental skill acquisition
  • Applied Kinesiology – survey of bone-muscle relationships and problems of analysis in human motion related to the muscular skills in body mechanics and athletics
  • Prevention and Care of Sports Injuries – athletic training and the basic techniques, principles, and theories underlying the prevention and care of a variety of athletic injuries and conditions
  • Exercise Testing and Prescription – an overview of trends in exercise habits, exercise evaluations, and the process of developing a total wellness approach to living; first aid and CPR certification
  • Physiology of Exercise – the function and limitations of the organism during exercise
  • Exercise Science Research – how to read, present, and interpret data involved in exercise science research
  • Personal and Family Health – the dimensions of health and practices for developing healthy lifestyles; health determinants, lifestyle behaviors, and risk and resilience factors associated with chronic and communicable diseases
  • Nutrition – a study of nutritional status and the effect of eating habits and food consumption on society, families, and individuals
  • Physical Education and Fitness for Special Populations – the special physical education and physical fitness needs of individuals with chronic or functional handicaps

Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology – One to Two Year Duration
The master’s degree curriculum in exercise physiology expands upon the learning outcomes of the bachelor’s program, with the objective of producing both healthcare practitioners and researchers. Schools may offer a thesis track, an internship track, or both. Graduates will be prepared to work in ongoing development of health and wellness programs, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, hospital-based clinical research, and fitness programs that evaluate athletes and human performance activities.

Among the focus areas covered in coursework and laboratory sessions at the master’s level are:

  • Biochemistry, Nutrition, and Exercise – principles of biochemistry and metabolic processes in relation to nutrition and exercise; carbohydrate, lipid, and protein metabolism and their role in providing energy; building and repairing tissues and regulating metabolic processes during physical activity; impact of nutrition on health, fitness, and athletic performance; regulation of cellular metabolism at the level of DNA / RNA
  • Cardiovascular Physiology – normal functioning of the cardiovascular system; cardiovascular control and regulation in humans; cardiovascular responses to exercise, hypertension, and cardiac failure
  • Clinical Exercise Physiology – pathophysiology of common chronic diseases for which exercise has been shown to be a therapeutic benefit, including diseases associated with the cardiovascular, pulmonary, musculoskeletal , metabolic, neurological, and immune systems; working with clinical and special populations in medical and nonmedical settings

Doctoral Degree in Exercise Physiology – Three Year Duration
Exercise physiology doctoral programs are focused on training students for academic research and teaching careers related to health and well-being, exercise and physical activity to prevent and treat chronic health-related conditions, and the underlying physiological and behavioral mechanisms. Defense of a doctoral dissertation is the culminating requirement of this degree.

Here are some examples of research areas:

  • Obesity and Body Weight Regulation
  • Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Disease
  • Epidemiology of Physical Activity and Chronic Disease
  • Physical Activity Programming for Health and Fitness
  • Physical Activity for Children and Adolescents
  • Technology-Based Interventions for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Disease
  • Perceptual Responses to Physical Activity and Exercise

The doctoral core curriculum is composed of coursework that supports the research process. Specific courses may include:

  • Introduction to Quantitative Methods: Descriptive and Inferential Statistics
  • Introduction to Qualitative Methods
  • Structural Equation Modeling

Degrees Similar to Exercise Physiology

A general biology degree program may include subjects like animal biology, invertebrate biology, vertebrate biology, cellular and molecular biology, evolution, microbiology, and ecology.

A kinesiology major studies the mechanics of body movements. A degree in the field can prepare students for a wide spectrum of careers in health, wellness, fitness, and education. It provides solid footing for prospective personal trainers, athletic therapists, and exercise scientists. It also lays the foundation for advanced study in kinesiology and in the complementary fields of medicine, physiotherapy, and chiropractics.

Nutrition Science
This degree field is concerned with the complex relationships between the body, nutrients, and health. Classes cover human nutrition and how the body processes nutrients.

Occupational Therapy
Degree programs in occupational therapy focus on helping patients adapt to loss of function by improving their fine motor and cognitive skills.

Personal Training
These programs prepare students to work as personal trainers. The curriculum focuses on nutrition, human anatomy, and exercise physiology.

Physical Therapy
Physical therapy majors learn how to treat patients for whom movement has become strained or limited due to injury, illness, or aging.

There is no distinct pre-medicine degree. ‘Pre-medicine’ or ‘pre-med’ is merely a term that students planning to go to medical school use to describe their undergraduate studies. In fact, aspiring doctors enter med school having earned many different bachelor’s degrees.

A science program such as biology or chemistry is certainly a common choice, but it is not mandatory. In other words, a pre-med student can be a psychology major, a statistics major, or a Spanish major. The key for students is to incorporate into their studies the classes needed to apply to medical school.

Recreation and Leisure Studies
The recreation and leisure studies curriculum combines classroom instruction with real-life experiences through community engagement. Students learn how to assess recreation and leisure needs within communities, develop and administer programs and events that respond to those needs, and evaluate the success of their responses.

Courses explore topics like the history and philosophy of recreation and leisure, the sociology of well-being, and recreation for special populations such as children, the elderly, and the physically or mentally challenged.

Skills You’ll Learn

Critical thinking and decision making
In health and fitness settings, it is absolutely essential that practitioners are able to think critically, to see problems and consider challenges from different perspectives. This approach is the only route to presenting the right plan and making the right decision.

Listening and communication
These are skills that are truly the by-products of earning any degree. Successfully completing a rigorous educational track means that you learned how to listen and interact, as well as to communicate both verbally and nonverbally. These are the cornerstone takeaways from education in general.

Observation is the key to understanding and monitoring any and every health and fitness related issue.

Service mindset
In any job that entails working with people, a commitment to customer service is needed. This characteristic, of course, is highly transferrable.

Social perception and empathy
The best health and wellness practitioners are able to understand what their clients are experiencing. They are socially aware and genuinely want to help.

Exercise physiologists, like all other health science professionals, are fundamentally in teaching roles that require them to help people change their behavior, habits, and attitudes.

What Can You Do with an Exercise Physiology Degree?

Career options for exercise physiology graduates include those listed below. Some may require further education and/or on-the-job training.

A degree in exercise physiology can also lay the foundation for further studies leading to these professional degrees:


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