Physical Therapy

How Much Does an Exercise Therapist Earn?

How Much Does an Exercise Therapist Earn?
The life, and paycheck, of an exercise therapist depends not only on how much education they choose to pursue but also where they live and whether they specialize. Image from Death to the Stock Photo
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella March 6, 2020

If you don't want to be a doctor but still want to earn good money while helping people recover from injuries and illnesses, consider becoming an exercise therapist. Find out how you can earn over $100,000 a year while using a medicine ball.

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Studies show that exercise can promote both physical and emotional well-being. Exercise therapy can be employed to either end, although its most common applications are to address physical pain and to promote injury recovery.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, exercise therapy helps “to restore normal musculoskeletal function or to reduce pain caused by diseases or injuries.” The term exercise therapist refers to a variety of professions, including:

Each of these jobs is considered exercise therapy, but the job descriptions, education requirements, and pay vary widely. Physical therapists, for example, can earn over $100,000 per year, while exercise physiologists might not earn half that much. In this guide to exercise therapist salaries we will cover:

  • What is an exercise therapist?
  • Education requirements for becoming an exercise therapist
  • How much will I earn as an exercise therapist?
  • Ways for exercise therapists to increase their salary

What is an exercise therapist?

The term ‘exercise therapist’ refers to several different job titles. Of these, exercise physiologists generally have the least amount of education, and they typically earn less money than physical, occupational, and dance therapists. These professionals, who are trained in kinesiology, work to help their clients recover from physically debilitating illnesses and injuries through strength training and exercise programs. Don’t confuse your exercise physiologist with a personal trainer.

Physical therapists (PTs) also help patients of all ages recover from injuries and illnesses (including cancer and heart issues). A PT’s job is to work with patients to return them, as much as possible, to their everyday capabilities. In the past, it was possible to become a PT with a master’s degree, but requirements are changing, and a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT) is now the practice standard.

Occupational therapists (OT) focus specifically on helping patients adapt to their world and complete daily tasks, which can include:

  • Going to work
  • Going to school
  • Getting dressed

An OT evaluates the physical limitations of their patients and works to make their environment accessible. OTs can practice with either a master’s or doctoral degree.

Dance therapists use movement to improve mental health and wellness for people of all ages. You need a master’s degree to practice dance therapy.

Education requirements for becoming an exercise therapist

Every exercise therapist has a different education track. A bachelor’s in kinesiology is one of the best undergraduate degrees that you can earn for all of them. According to Michigan State University, “Kinesiology is the study of physical activity and its impact on health, society and quality of life.”

In addition to kinesiology, this degree offers courses in:

  • Chemistry
  • Human movement
  • Sport psychology
  • Physiology

A bachelor’s in kinesiology will qualify you to become an exercise physiologist. It will also set you up to pursue higher education in the field of exercise therapy. Other top undergraduate degree options include exercise physiology and exercise science.

Graduate degrees for exercise therapists

Occupational therapists, dance therapists, and physical therapists each need to complete at least a master’s degree program.

Occupational therapists must complete an American Occupational Therapist Association-accredited program to be considered for licensure. Approved schools include:

Physical therapists, on the other hand, must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT). As doctorates go, it’s not as grueling as some. You can complete it in around three years, and it includes most of the training you need to become licensed. Think of it as though somebody condensed medical school and the residency into one convenient degree.

Highly ranked PT programs in the US include:

There are only a handful of dance therapy programs that are approved by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA). They include:

Though having a degree in kinesiology can help with your applications to graduate programs, most do not require a specific degree. Even being a dance major is not necessarily a requirement for becoming a dance therapist—although the ADTA requires applicants to be skilled in at least two forms of movement.


After completing your education, it is time to get licensed. Each career has a different licensure procedure.

Occupational, physical, and dance therapists need to pass certification exams (plus complete any state specific requirements). These exams are:

In order to open a private practice, dance therapists must also pass earn the Board Certified Dance/Movement Therapist (BC-DMT) credential.

Though no national standard applies, it is beneficial for exercise physiologists to earn some life-support certifications. Employers prefer:

You can also earn an Exercise Physiologist Certification through the American Society of Exercise Physiologists.

How much will I earn as an exercise therapist?

What you’ll earn as an exercise therapist depends on the type of career you pursue. Here is a basic breakdown of what you can earn in each job:

These estimates come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which calculates the median annual income, and the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), which provides mean earnings, so they are not a full representation of your potential earnings. Other contributing factors, such as location, can influence your income.

What states pay exercise therapists the best?

It is essential to know (roughly) how much you can earn in your state before undertaking the education needed to be an exercise therapist. Degrees are expensive, and if you know it is possible to earn substantially more money in another state, it could influence your long-term plans.

The top-paying states for physical therapists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are:

  • Nevada ($107,920)
  • Alaska ($99,180)
  • New Jersey ($97,770)
  • New Mexico ($97,210)
  • California ($97,110)

Nevada is also the top-paying state for occupational therapists ($100,970). New Jersey ($96,600) and California ($95,160) also appear among the top five.

For exercise physiologists, California is the best-paying state. You can earn $89,030 a year there, which is over $20,000 more than the next-highest-paying state, New York ($68,180). The national median for exercise physiologists is under $50,000.

The ADTA does not provide data on how geography impacts salary.

Ways for exercise therapists to increase their salary

It is impossible to figure out exactly how much you will earn working in exercise therapy, but some contributing factors to take into account include:

  • Employer
  • Experience
  • Specialization

By evaluating these variables, it is possible to get a better understanding of what your salary will look like.

How employer effects salary

One of the biggest factors in determining how much money you can earn as an exercise therapist is your employer. Occupational therapists in nursing homes earn over $90,000 per year, while those who work in hospitals earn $85,770, and those who work in schools earn around $73,000, according to the BLS. The discrepancy is even larger for physiologists who work for the government ($72,440) when compared to those who work in the offices of other therapists ($44,440).

The BLS does not keep statistics on the average earnings of self-employed exercise therapists. More than half of exercise physiologists are self-employed, while nearly 60 percent of occupational therapists open their own practices. Only 5 percent of physical therapists operate in private practice.

How years of experience can increase your salary

Experience level influences salary in all careers—not just exercise therapy. PayScale’s salary data indicates that the average annual income for physical therapists with more than 20 years of experience is $86,000, while those with between five and nine years of experience earn an average of $77,000. Occupational therapists also report a salary increase after accruing experience, with many earning an extra $10,000 annually after six years on the job.

How specialization impacts salary

Occupational and physical therapists can specialize after getting licensed. Though not a requirement, specializing can help you earn more money. For instance, the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties polled employers and “39 percent of total respondents reported that a salary increase would be considered as a result of obtaining specialist certification.”

Some PT specialties include:

The American Occupation Therapy Association is in the process of changing its certification procedure from peer-reviewed to exam-based. According to the website, “The new certification program will begin with major areas currently part of the Board Certification program, to be followed by a new Specialty Certification process.” Currently, OTs can earn board certification in the areas of:

  • Gerontology
  • Mental health
  • Pediatrics
  • Physical rehabilitation

The life, and paycheck, of an exercise therapist depends not only on how much education they choose to pursue but also where they live and whether they specialize. If you are willing to put in the work cracking books (and spines), you can earn a great living while helping people achieve goals they could never reach on their own.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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