Is a long day of hiking, running or cycling your idea of a fantastic time? Are you passionate about helping others reach their physical fitness goals? If so, you might consider one of the many career paths that a kinesiologist can pursue.
What exactly does a kinesiologist do? A kinesiologist can pursue many different career paths, so there is no universal answer. In this career guide, you’ll learn about kinesiology and some of the career paths that you might pursue after earning an exercise science degree.
What Is Kinesiology?
Before taking a look at the question, “What does a kinesiologist do?”, it’s first necessary to develop a basic understanding of what kinesiology is. Kinesiology is a branch of science that studies physical activity and human movement. It also explores how physical activity affects health, quality of life and society as a whole. Kinesiology examines human movement and performance through the lens of physiology, mechanics and anatomy.
There can be some confusion about the difference between exercise science and kinesiology. Indeed, there is considerable overlap between these two specializations, because exercise science is a subfield of kinesiology. However, exercise science focuses more narrowly on the human response to — and adaptations for — exercise, whereas kinesiology is a broader field.
Because kinesiology is an extensive field, a kinesiologist can pursue a number of different career paths across a wide range of settings. For instance, some kinesiologists work in fitness centers helping individuals improve their physical fitness. Others work in laboratories studying issues such as repetitive strain injuries or even the movement of joints in low-gravity settings.
Here is a look at some of the subfields, professions and settings that a kinesiologist can work in:
- Fitness training: Many kinesiologists decide to become fitness trainers, working with small groups or individuals to help improve their physical health.
- Biomechanics: Some kinesiologists specialize in biomechanics — the study of how the principles of mechanics apply to human movement.
- Massage therapy: After graduating with an exercise science degree, a kinesiologist might decide to undergo additional training to become a specialized massage therapist, such as a sports massage therapist.
- Occupational therapy: Occupational therapists specialize in helping patients adapt to various types of limitations (e.g., reduced strength or gripping ability) when handling the activities of daily living.
- Physical therapy: A background in kinesiology can prove quite useful for people who go on to train to become physical therapists.
- Adapted physical activity: Some kinesiologists decide to specialize in helping children and/or adults stay physically fit despite disabilities.
Some kinesiology students aspire to specialize in sports. For instance, they may pursue jobs as sports team coaches at the high-school, collegiate or professional level. Alternatively, they may decide to work in sports management.
A Look at a Typical Kinesiologist Job Description
There is no standard kinesiologist job description because there are multiple career pathways to choose from. For instance, if you major in exercise science, you might go on to pursue a career as a personal trainer, physical therapist or sports coach. Here’s a quick look at what you might expect from daily life as a personal trainer:
- Assessing new clients’ current health, fitness goals and ability level, and developing an appropriate exercise program for them
- Demonstrating proper techniques and biomechanics for various exercises, and offering corrections as clients perform them
- Explaining the proper use of exercise equipment, including safety guidelines and facility rules
- Providing encouragement to clients, along with additional resources for making healthy lifestyle and nutrition choices
Fitness trainers often work at fitness centers, although some of them may launch their own businesses. Some fitness trainers later go on to manage fitness clubs. In contrast, physical therapists typically work at clinics, hospitals and rehabilitation facilities, where they perform tasks such as the following:
- Reviewing patients’ medical history and notes from other healthcare providers
- Evaluating patients’ physical functioning, deficits and limitations, discussing their goals and developing individualized treatment plans
- Using various treatment modalities to alleviate pain and inflammation, such as ultrasound therapy, massage and passive stretching maneuvers
- Educating patients on performing corrective stretches and exercises using proper biomechanics and techniques
A physical therapist is a key member of a patient’s care team. Physical therapists may work with professional or amateur athletes, as well as non-athletic individuals who are recovering from surgery, a heart attack or another medical event. In contrast, kinesiologists who decide to become sports coaches will work exclusively with athletes across all levels. Sports coaches typically do the following tasks:
- Teach sport-specific skills, techniques and strategies to individuals or teams
- Organize and lead practice sessions and team meetings
- Develop strength and conditioning programs
- Make strategic decisions during competitions, including play calling and player substitutions
- Track and analyze individual player performance, and make decisions about the team roster
- Identify potential players to be added to the team and lead recruitment efforts
How To Become a Kinesiologist
If you’re passionate about physical fitness, sports and health, then a career in kinesiology might be the perfect fit for you. Talk to your high school guidance counselor about your career aspirations and discuss whether you can adjust your course load. It would be ideal to take as many science and health courses as possible. Try to take a class on human anatomy and physiology, if available.
Additionally, look for a relevant part-time job during the summer or after school. You could pursue positions at local fitness centers, community sports facilities, or recreational programs for young children. You can also look for sports-related summer camps. Of course, you’ll also want to participate in sports teams at your school.
Although there are many possible career paths for kinesiologists, they all generally require a bachelor’s degree. Some may require additional training and certifications (e.g. massage therapists and personal trainers). Others require a graduate degree and licensure (e.g. physical therapy).
Even if your chosen career doesn’t require an advanced degree or certifications, having additional credentials can be helpful. For instance, fitness centers may prefer or require that their fitness trainers have a CPR certification in addition to their personal trainer certification. Some certifications may be activity-specific, such as the Registered Yoga Teacher credential from the Yoga Alliance.
Earn Your Undergraduate Exercise Science Degree
If the thought of becoming a kinesiologist appeals to you, you’ll need to plan on earning a bachelor’s degree after high school. Not all colleges offer a degree specifically in kinesiology. Fortunately, exercise science degrees are more common, and they are a great fit for aspiring kinesiologists.
An exercise science degree will prepare you to pursue a wide range of related careers, go on to graduate school or sit for a nationally recognized certification. Exercise science degrees encompass a spectrum of competencies in areas such as anatomy, physiology, motor learning, corrective exercise and behavioral changes. Although the specific curriculum will vary depending on your school, you can generally expect to study topics such as the following:
- Principles of scientific research in sports performance, physical activity, nutrition and overall health
- Strength and cardiovascular training techniques, with a look at the responses and adaptations of the musculoskeletal, cardiac and respiratory systems
- Factors involved with behavioral patterns and behavioral change, including the basics of sports psychology
- Fundamentals of nutritional science and how nutritional choices affect overall health
- Sports performance science and coaching, including movement preparation, plyometrics, acceleration, multidirectional speed and exercise techniques
- Motor skills through the lifespan, with a look at developmental motor milestones and special concerns of rehabilitation populations
As an exercise science major, you can expect to attend a combination of lecture classes and hands-on labs. Although you’ll be busy studying, you should plan on setting aside plenty of time for making good use of your school’s recreational programs and fitness centers. It’s ideal for exercise science majors to have a thorough understanding of a range of physical activities—from pickleball to aquatics—and acquiring first-hand experience can be quite enjoyable.
During your time as an undergrad, look for part-time employment opportunities that are relevant to your field, such as a job as a student worker at your campus fitness center. You might also consider looking for job shadowing and internship opportunities at nearby physical rehabilitation clinics, community sports facilities and similar venues. The career services department at your school is an excellent resource for finding internship and part-time employment opportunities.
Do Kinesiologists Need a Graduate Degree?
There is no universal answer to this question. Since kinesiologists can pursue a range of different career paths, one might need a graduate degree while another does not. There are certainly many professions in this field that you can pursue without a graduate degree, although you might need a professional certification.
For example, personal trainers might not always need a certification to lead group fitness classes. However, they usually will need a certification to work one-on-one with clients. On the other hand, aspiring physical therapists do need to go on to grad school after earning a bachelor’s degree. In fact, all states require physical therapists to hold a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree and appropriate state licensure.
During your last two years as an undergrad, you’ll need to give some serious thought to your preferred career pathway. In particular, you’ll need to consider whether you want to go to grad school. If you’re having trouble deciding exactly which type of kinesiology career you want to pursue, consider talking to your school’s alumni relations coordinator to see if you can connect with working professionals in the field. Their insights may help give your own career plans greater clarity.
Do Kinesiologists Need to Work Their Way Up the Ladder?
It’s entirely possible for kinesiologists to pursue higher-level positions, but it depends on their specific career. For example, personal trainers can often get right to work as soon as they acquire their certification. However, some facilities might prefer to have experienced fitness trainers mentor new hires for a little while.
The same is true of physical therapists. As part of their training, an aspiring physical therapist may work at an apprenticeship program at a physical therapy clinic to gain experience working directly with patients under supervision.
Similarly, if you decide that you’d like to become a coach for a professional sports team, you can expect to put in many years of hard work. For example, let’s say you want to become the manager of a major league baseball team. You might first start out as the strength and conditioning coach of a collegiate team before moving on to become the pitching coach of a minor league team, and then you might serve as the bench coach of a major league team before getting a shot at the manager’s job.
You can get started on your career as a kinesiologist when you become a student at Grand Canyon University. The College of Science, Engineering and Technology is pleased to offer the Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science with an Emphasis in Sports Performance degree program, which prepares graduates to pursue a number of rewarding career options in the field or to sit for a range of certification exams.
Approved by Department Chair/Associate Professor for the College of Science, Engineering and Technology on Oct. 17, 2022.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.