Athletic trainers specialize in preventing, diagnosing, and treating muscle and bone injuries and illnesses. Exercise physiologists develop fitness and exercise programs that help patients recover from chronic diseases and improve cardiovascular function, body composition, and flexibility.


Athletic trainers (ATs) typically do the following:

  • Apply protective or injury-preventive devices such as tape, bandages, and braces
  • Recognize and evaluate injuries
  • Provide first aid or emergency care
  • Develop and carry out rehabilitation programs for injured athletes
  • Plan and implement comprehensive programs to prevent injury and illness among athletes
  • Perform administrative tasks such as keeping records and writing reports on injuries and treatment programs

Exercise physiologists (EPs) typically do the following:

  • Analyze a patient’s medical history to determine the best possible exercise and fitness regimen
  • Perform fitness tests with medical equipment and analyze the subsequent patient data
  • Measure body fat, blood pressure, oxygen usage, and other key patient health indicators
  • Develop exercise programs to improve patient health
  • Supervise clinical tests to ensure patient safety

Athletic trainers work with people of all ages and all skill levels, from young children to soldiers and professional athletes. Athletic trainers are usually one of the first healthcare providers on the scene when injuries occur. They work under the direction of a licensed physician and with other healthcare providers, and often discuss specific injuries and treatment options or evaluate and treat patients as directed by a physician. Some athletic trainers meet with a team physician or consulting physician regularly. An athletic trainer’s administrative responsibilities may include regular meetings with an athletic director or other administrative officer to deal with budgets, purchasing, policy implementation, and other business-related issues.

Exercise physiologists work to improve overall patient health, and many of their patients suffer from health problems such as cardiovascular disease, or are obese. Exercise physiologists provide health education and exercise plans to improve key health indicators. Some physiologists work closely with primary physicians.

Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists should not be confused with fitness trainers and instructors, including personal trainers.

Work Environment

Athletic trainers held about 22,900 jobs in 2012. Exercise physiologists held about 6,000 jobs in 2012.

Many athletic trainers work in educational facilities, such as secondary schools or colleges. Others may work in physicians' offices or for professional sports teams. Some athletic trainers work in rehabilitation and therapy clinics, in the military, or with performing artists. They may spend their time working outdoors on sports fields, and in all types of weather.

The industries that employed the most athletic trainers in 2012 were as follows:

Colleges, universities, and professional
schools; state, local, and private
Offices of other health practitioners 15
Hospitals; state, local, and private 13
Fitness and recreational sports centers 13

Exercise physiologists work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, and nursing and residential care facilities. 

The industries that employed the most exercise physiologists in 2012 were as follows: 

General medical and surgical
hospitals; state, local, and private
Ambulatory health care services 21
Specialty (except psychiatric and substance abuse)
hospitals; state, local, and private
Nursing and residential care facilities 4

Work Schedules

Most athletic trainers and exercise physiologists work full time. Athletic trainers who work with teams during sporting events may work evenings or weekends and travel often. About 2 in 5 exercise physiologists worked part time.

Education and Training

Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree. In most states, athletic trainers need a license or certification; requirements vary by state.


Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university. Master’s degree programs are also common. Both degree programs have classroom and clinical components, including science and health-related courses, such as biology, anatomy, physiology, and nutrition.

The Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE) accredits athletic director programs, as well as post-professional and residency athletic trainer programs.

The Committee on Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences accredits exercise physiology programs.

High school students interested in postsecondary athletic training or exercise physiology programs should take courses in anatomy, physiology, and physics.

Important Qualities

Compassion. Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists work with athletes and patients who may be in considerable pain or discomfort. ATs and EPs must be sympathetic while providing treatments.

Decision-making skills. Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists must be able to make informed clinical de­cisions that could affect the health or livelihood of patients.

Detail oriented. Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists must be able to record detailed, accurate progress and ensure that patients are receiving the appropriate treatments or practicing the correct fitness regimen.

Interpersonal skills. Athletic trainers and exercise physiologists must have strong interpersonal skills and be able to manage difficult situations. They must be able to communicate well with others, including physicians, patients, athletes, coaches, and parents.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Athletic trainers must be licensed or certified in most states; requirements vary by state. The independent Board of Certification, Inc. (BOC) offers the standard certification examination that most states use for licensing athletic trainers. Certification requires graduating from a CAATE-accredited program and completing the BOC exam. To maintain certification, athletic trainers must adhere to the BOC Standards of Practice and Disciplinary Process and take continuing education courses.

Requirements for an athletic trainer license typically include graduating from an accredited athletic training program and passing the BOC exam or a separate state exam. For specific information on requirements, contact the local state regulatory agency.

Just a few states require exercise physiologists to be licensed, although many states have pending legislation to create formal licensure requirements.

The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) offers the Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC) certification that physiologists can use to demonstrate their qualifications. Certification requires graduation with a relevant bachelor’s degree and coursework, completing the ASEP exam, and taking continuing education courses every 5 years.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) also offers certifications for exercise physiologists. ACSM offers the Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist (CES) credential for candidates with bachelor’s degrees and the Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP) for candidates with master’s degrees.


Assistant athletic trainers may become head athletic trainers, athletic directors, or physician, hospital, or clinic practice administrators, where they assume a management role. Some athletic trainers move into sales and marketing positions, using their expertise to sell medical and athletic equipment. Athletic trainers working in colleges and universities may pursue an advanced degree to increase their advancement opportunities.

Exercise physiologists with some business training have better opportunities to advance into management positions.


The median annual wage for athletic trainers was $42,090 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $25,960, and the top 10 percent earned more than $64,140.

The median annual wage for exercise physiologists was $44,770 in May 2012. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,000, and the top 10 percent earned more than $70,140.

Because some work with teams during sporting events, athletic trainers may be required to work evenings or weekends and travel often.

Job Outlook

Employment of athletic trainers is projected to grow 21 percent from 2012 to 2022, faster than the average for all occupations. However, because it is a small occupation, the fast growth will result in only about 4,900 new jobs over the 10-year period. As people become more aware of sports-related injuries at a young age, demand for athletic trainers is expected to increase, most significantly in colleges, universities, and youth leagues.

Recent research reveals that the effects of concussions are particularly severe and long lasting in child athletes. Although concussions are dangerous to athletes at any age, children’s brains are still developing and are at risk for permanent complications. Parents and coaches are becoming educated about these greater risks through community health efforts. Because athletic trainers are usually onsite with athletes and are often the first responders when injuries occur, the demand for trainers should continue to increase.

Additionally, advances in injury prevention and detection and more sophisticated treatments are projected to increase the demand for athletic trainers. Growth in an increasingly active middle-aged and elderly population will likely lead to an increased incidence of athletic-related injuries, such as sprains. Sports programs at all ages and for all experience levels will continue to create demand for athletic trainers.

Insurance and workers’ compensation costs have become a concern for many employers and insurance companies, especially in areas where employees are often injured on the job. For example, military bases hire athletic trainers to help train and rehabilitate injured military personnel. These trainers also create programs aimed at keeping injury rates down. Depending on the state, some insurance companies recognize athletic trainers as healthcare providers and reimburse the cost of an athletic trainer’s services.

Employment of exercise physiologists is projected to grow 9 percent from 2012 to 2022, about as fast as the average for all occupations. This is a small occupation, and compared to athletic trainers, licensure for exercise physiologists is less common and therefore there are fewer recognized standards of practice for exercise physiologists. Demand may rise as hospitals emphasize exercise and preventive care as part of their treatment for chronic diseases and long-term rehabilitation. There are few available exercise physiologist positions, so competition for work remains high.

For More Information

For more information about athletic trainers, visit

National Athletic Trainers’ Association

For more information about accredited athletic training programs, visit

Commission on the Accreditation of Athletic Training Education

For more information about certification and state regulatory requirements for athletic trainers, visit

Board of Certification, Inc.

For more information about exercise physiologists and certifications, visit

The American Society of Exercise Physiologists

The American College of Sports Medicine

Committee on Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences