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Earning an Online Exercise Degree

Unable to attend an on-site university? Online exercise degrees provide an alternative.

Troy Stewart Huggett, a self-employed personal trainer, wanted to obtain a master’s degree in physical education. However, he faced a stumbling block: Running his own business, Troy Huggett’s Fitness Pros LLC in Battle Creek, Michigan, meant a hectic work schedule that didn’t leave him much time to attend on-site classes. The solution? He enrolled in and earned an online master’s degree from Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas.

Some working professionals are finding that online degrees are the answer to advancing their education in the midst of a busy personal or professional schedule. Do you want to earn a bachelor’s or master’s degree in an exercise-related field? If so, you may want to consider online education. Learn the benefits and potential downsides of online programs, what to expect from them, and strategies for finding one that suits your needs.

Benefits of
an Online Degree

Why obtain a bachelor’s or master’s degree online? Here’s why students who have completed such degrees and instructors who teach in the programs recommend them:

Career Advancement. “In the health promotion and fitness industries, many administrative jobs require a master’s degree,” says Kathy Ermler, EdD, chair of the health, physical education and recreation department at Emporia State University. “If you want to move up into administration, you will need an advanced degree.”

Barry E. McGlumphy, MS, ATC, exercise science program coordinator and associate professor at California University of Pennsylvania (CUP) in California, Pennsylvania, says, “Feedback from our graduates is that current or new employers respect their degrees, and the graduates are increasing their earning potential.”

Tyler Tims, MS, NASM-PES, CSCS, who obtained a master’s degree through CUP, adds, “This program gave me the knowledge, credentials and confidence to be a leader in my profession.”

A Way to Earn an Exercise-Related Degree. Christine Romani-Ruby, MPT, ATC, assistant professor in the CUP program and owner of PowerHouse Pilates LLC in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, has worked in the fitness industry for many years and has found that people often fall into jobs in this field without having a related degree. “Online programs are a convenient way for them to earn an exercise-related bachelor’s or master’s degree,” she says.

International Perspective. McGlumphy says that online exercise degree programs may also offer participants the opportunity to share with and learn from fellow professionals worldwide. “Most of our students are working fitness, health, coaching and wellness professionals from across the United States and around the world,” he says. “We have had students from England, China, Hong Kong, Canada, South Africa, India and other countries.”

Convenience. Many students say the biggest benefit of online programs is their flexibility and convenience. “The cost and time [spent] driving and sitting in a class away from families and jobs are definitely detriments in face-to-face programs,” Ermler says. “Some people in our online program would never have been able to complete it without the ability to do it online.”

What to Expect
From a Program

Online programs offer many of the same components as traditional on-site courses plus some innovative means to foster interaction.

“We strive to create a ‘virtual community’ of professionals in the online learning environment,” says McGlumphy. “Students are enrolled as cohorts of 25 who move through the program together as a group and who graduate together with the goal of developing into a network of peers learning from each other. The student interaction is as thought-provoking and interesting as any discussion our faculty have had in the traditional classroom. In fact, much of the student feedback states that there is more interaction and sharing of professional ideas in the online courses versus the traditional classroom. The weekly threaded discussions in each course create a forum where students are required to respond to questions and interact.”

How much work is required in the CUP programs? “Students [must] complete one unit per course per week,” he says. “Some students work during their lunch hour, others log in on the weekends, and some complete the course work late at night or early in the morning.”

Program Costs

Fees for online courses are usually similar to those for onsite programs.

“The cost is comparable,” says McGlumphy. “However, fees for online students [end up being less] since students do not have to pay on-campus-related fees, such as computer lab, health center and fitness center fees.”

Huggett says that his fees were $110 per credit hour at the time he went through Emporia’s program. “The price per credit hour was just $10–$50 less per credit than the onsite courses. However, if you add in the cost saved from not having to travel and pay parking or gas and the income [not lost] from having to miss work, the savings become even more significant.”

Keys to Success

What characteristics do you need in order to do well in an online degree program? Ken Baldwin, MEd, program coordinator for the online professional certificate in personal fitness training at San Diego State University in California and program coordinator for personal fitness training in the department of health and kinesiology at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, says that certain people are better suited to distance learning than others. He lists the following as key traits for success:

  • feels comfortable with the written word and use of e-mail as a communication form
  • is self-disciplined, self-guided and committed to the program
  • is able to prioritize responsibilities and work independently
  • is unlikely to procrastinate
  • will ask for assistance when needed
    to build academic and social support systems
  • has much to benefit from this delivery method versus residence programs (examples: variable work hours, busy lifestyle, geographic isolation from campus, parenting requirements or restrictions, physical disability)

Ermler adds that online master’s programs also require “a good ability to search electronic and Internet sources. I don’t just mean doing a Google search, but being able to search library and archive sources. Many students are uncomfortable with these kinds of searches, but coming into a program with a feeling of how to do this type of research would be very helpful.”

Downsides of Programs

While online exercise degree programs boast many pros, they also have cons.

Lack of Hands-On, Practical Work. Not being able to work on fitness-related skills through on-site labs can be a drawback. “Although our courses work very well even with psychomotor skills being presented, there are certain courses that would benefit from a lab,” says McGlumphy. “We solve this issue by having the students use their worksites as their working laboratory to implement exercises and programming they learned in the online classroom into their daily routine. We also require that several case studies be submitted during the program that show the ability of the student to implement new knowledge and techniques.”

Ermler adds, however, that “many online graduate students who came into the program at the same time became very good friends and have been very helpful to each other professionally.”

finding a program


Interested in learning more about online exercise degrees? Check out the following websites:

  • www.gradschool.com—Search under “online schools” to find various exercise-related master’s degree programs.
  • www.emporia.edu/hper/graduate/gradindex.htm—Get information about the online master’s program in physical education offered through Emporia State University.
  • www.cup.edu—Click on “Global Online” to find information regarding online programs such as the exercise science and health promotion master’s degree, the sport management studies master’s degree and the sports management studies: fitness and wellness bachelor’s degree offered at California University of Pennsylvania.

What to Consider

When you are comparing degree programs, ask the following questions to find a reputable program:

  • Is the program accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting organization?
  • How long has the program been offered?
  • Is the program part of a brick-and-mortar college or university? Can you visit a physical location? Does the website show photos of actual school buildings?
  • Can you e-mail or talk to other students about their experience with the program? Can you talk to professors?
  • How do the programs teach hands-on skills or labs?

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