Physical Therapy

How Do You Become an Exercise Therapist?

How Do You Become an Exercise Therapist?
All exercise therapy careers use kinesiology—the study of movement—to help patients, but in other ways, they are distinct. Image from Unsplash
Lucien Formichella profile
Lucien Formichella March 25, 2020

Exercise therapist is an umbrella term that includes physical therapists, occupational therapists, exercise physiologists, and dance therapists. They help clients—often those recovering from an illness or injury—achieve specific physical goals.

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The National Center for Biotechnology Information defines exercise therapy as “a regimen or plan of physical activities designed and prescribed for specific therapeutic goals.” An exercise therapist works directly with patients—mostly in a one-on-one setting, but sometimes in groups—to establish and meet their objectives.

Exercise therapy is a broad term that includes several careers. You might:

  • Assist a car crash survivor in regaining mobility as a physical therapist
  • Support a family learning how to care adequately for a child with cerebral palsy as an occupational therapist
  • Help someone return to full health after a crippling illness as an exercise physiologist
  • Improve an elderly individual’s mental health and well-being through movement as a dance therapist

In this guide to building an exercise therapist career, we will cover:

  • Kinds of exercise therapist careers
  • Education requirements for exercise therapists
  • Expected salary for exercise therapists
  • Licensure and accreditation for exercise therapists

Kinds of exercise therapist careers

All exercise therapy careers use kinesiology—the study of movement—to help patients, but in other ways, they are distinct. Each one has a unique salary range, job description, and set of education requirements. The four primary careers in exercise therapy are:

  • Physical therapist
  • Occupational therapist
  • Exercise physiologist
  • Dance therapist

In deciding which exercise therapist career is right for you, keep in mind the time and effort it will take to meet your goal.

Physical therapist career

A physical therapist (PT) helps adults and children recover from injuries, chronic diseases, and cancer. They might even help with cardiac rehabilitation. A PT’s job is to work with patients so they can return to their everyday capabilities (as much as possible).

Physical therapists are medical doctors, although they don’t spend quite as much time in school as physicians. Physical therapists complete their residency at the same time as their graduate degree; the residency generally lasts anywhere from 9 to 36 months, totaling at least 1,500 hours of work experience. These residencies are different from working as a physical therapist assistant, which is a separate career altogether.

Occupational therapist career

As does a PT, an occupational therapist (OT) helps people return to normative capabilities. The job is similar to that of a PT in many ways, except OTs specifically assist patients who are trying to return to work and everyday life. They have clients of all ages, including:

  • Children
  • Adults
  • The elderly

They also work with the disabled.

An OT focuses on helping patients adapt to the world, especially when they cannot control their motor functions completely. In these cases, the OT makes the patient’s environment as accessible as possible.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an occupational therapist’s responsibilities include:

  • Assessing a patient by analyzing medical history and performance
  • Creating a plan for treatment
  • Developing goals with the patient
  • Working to improve specific skills, such as eating
  • Helping make the patient’s living and working environment accessible
  • Educating the patient’s friends, family, and/or employer about their role
  • Demonstrating how to use recommended equipment, such as a wheelchair
  • Making records of assessments
  • Communicating with other doctors—specifically for billing purposes

Exercise physiologist career

These professionals work with clients who are trying to improve their strength and conditioning. You might read this and think: “Oh, so I’m going to be like one of those athletic trainers.” No. Most patients will be using your exercise regimens to recover from illness or injury, so this career is closer to sports medicine than personal training.

Though technically the easiest of all exercise therapist jobs to qualify for, becoming an exercise physiologist still involves comprehensive education and training. You will likely need to earn certifications and complete a bachelor’s degree program in one of these fields:

  • Exercise physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Exercise science

Even though many associate’s degree programs offer majors in these areas, it is crucial to get your degree from a four-year institution. Having a bachelor’s looks better on a resume and creates more employment opportunities.

Dance therapist career

Since the 1940s, dance therapy has been emerging as a way to literally perform psychotherapy. The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) defines dance therapy as a way to “promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual, for the purpose of improving health and well-being.” In short, it is like hands-on learning for the soul.

Dance therapists might work with:

  • Individuals of all ages
  • Couples
  • Families
  • Groups

Education requirements for exercise therapists

Most exercise therapist positions require at least a master’s degree, though some positions (namely exercise physiologist) only call for a bachelor’s degree. You will likely want to earn a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, nutrition, or another human science subject.

Physical therapist education requirements

Though PTs technically earn a doctorate, it is not the kind that you spend 12 years working on while growing a long white beard. A Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT), including most of the fieldwork requirements, usually takes three or four years to complete.

There are many accredited physical therapy schools. Some of the top DPT programs include:

Occupational therapist education requirements

Every OT has at least a master’s degree in occupational therapy. Some may have doctorates, but that’s not necessarily a requirement. A degree in occupational therapy usually takes three years to complete and prepares you for national certification exams.

Programs usually include courses in:

  • Therapeutic exercise methods
  • Assistive technology
  • Fieldwork assignments

Top schools with occupational therapy programs include:

Exercise physiologist education requirements

There is no definitive undergraduate degree that you need to become an exercise physiologist, but studying kinesiology is one of the best choices. According to Michigan State University‘s program page, kinesiology is “the study of physical activity and its impact on health, society and quality of life.”

Some American Kinesiology Association-approved programs include:

As a kinesiology major, you will likely take courses in:

  • Chemistry
  • Human movement
  • Sport psychology
  • Physiology
  • Kinesiology (of course)

It is possible to get a master’s degree in clinical exercise physiology as a form of continuing education, but an undergraduate education is all you need to begin this career. Deciding to earn a master’s degree most likely means you are trying to change jobs. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – Shadyside School of Nursing has an exercise physiology master’s program that prepares students to transition into:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Doctoral programs

Dance therapist education requirements

According to the ADTA, you must complete a graduate degree to become a dance therapist. Schools that offer a master’s degree program in dance movement therapy include:

To get into one of these programs, you must be proficient in at least two separate dance/movement forms. Teaching experience is also highly recommended.

Expected salary for exercise therapists

An exercise therapist’s salary depends on their practice. For instance, physical therapists earn a median annual income of $87,930, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the median exercise physiologist income was $49,270 in 2018. These two careers represent the top and bottom expected incomes for exercise therapists.

Occupational therapists are (usually) the second-highest paid exercise therapists. They earned a median income of $84,270 in 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dance therapists have a fairly wide range of earnings. The ADTA reports that most make between $60,000 and $70,000 per year, but salaries can also go higher than $95,000 for those in private practice.

Licensure and accreditation for exercise therapists

Most exercise therapists must get licensed, either through a professional organization, state board, or both. The exception (for now) is exercise physiologists, who do not need a license to practice anywhere outside of Louisiana. Many states are pushing to create licensure requirements, however, so if you want to join the lawless wild west that is exercise physiology, now is the time.

That said, hospitals and most employers want to see certified exercise physiologist candidates with at least one of the following credentials:

Shouldn’t my master’s degree count as a license?

Sadly, a master’s degree does not count as a license. After graduation, physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) through the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Individual states might have their own requirements, though the NPTE will always be among them.

In order to become a licensed OT, the American Occupational Therapists Association (AOTA) requires candidates to:

Finally, dance therapists can obtain up to two credentials, though again, individual states may have their own procedure. These are:

It is not easy to become an exercise therapist, but it is worth it. Most earn a high salary and can even open a private practice (think flexible hours and more control). Perhaps most important, you get to provide a service that can genuinely change lives.

It seems like every day an inspirational video appears showcasing somebody relearning how to walk. These people don’t just get up one day after a horrific illness or accident—there is always an exercise therapist supporting them throughout the process. That therapist could be you.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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