Exercise physiologists specialize in the study of the body's response to acute and chronic bouts of exercise. There are specialties within the field and different career tracks that any exercise physiologist can follow. As in all fields, you can choose to focus on your specialty or broaden your education and experience to make yourself more marketable. Do not confuse exercise physiologists with personal trainers.
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Exercise physiology involves studying the body's response to training, nutrition and supplementation protocols. Evaluations are not just based upon strength or endurance, but the response of the body as a whole. An exercise physiologist may measure blood lactate levels to determine the response to resistance training. She can perform a stress test to determine the effect of an exercise upon the electrical conductivity of the heart. Even the response of the brain to specific nutrients may be studied. Any response that the human body generates is a point of data that an exercise physiologist can use to draw conclusions about human performance.
Academic Career Path
If you wish to research or teach, or both, pursue an academic career path. Most exercise physiology labs are attached to large universities, offering the potential to teach, research and, potentially, publish. Working at the same location as a peer-review committee that will review your work gives you advantages over someone employed in the private sector. Exercise physiology studies proceed to the doctorate level, which often requires certification from the American Society of Exercise Physiologists.
Coaching Career Path
The coaching career path uses the most hands-on application of exercise physiology, as it deals directly with sports performance. At the university level, coaching offers many of the benefits of the academic career path, but the job itself differs. You start as a very junior assistant strength and conditioning coach, and work your way to a head coaching position. Unlike the academic exercise physiologist, you will report to either a head coach or the university athletic director. Coaches at the professional level have the greatest opportunities for salary and travel; they also run the risk of losing a job if the team has a losing season.
Many private institutions, such as those in the health care field, employ exercise physiologists. Hospitals frequently employ exercise physiologists to perform duties ranging from stress tests to the management of rehabilitation facilities. The most common certification required for this career path is the Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist certification from the American College of Sports Medicine. Exercise physiologists in a clinical setting may also develop programs for special-needs athletes, including those afflicted with multiple sclerosis. Private facilities often employ exercise physiologists who have well-rounded backgrounds as managing directors.
As in other fields, your ability as an exercise physiologist to gain employment is based not only upon your skill within the field, but what else you bring to the table. A minor in nutrition is both common and often expected by a prospective employer. If you wish to work in rehabilitation, extra clinical skills practice is a must. If you wish to coach, you need a strong working knowledge of a specific sport or sports. If you wish to manage, business skills -- perhaps even a related degree -- will serve you well.