The Pursuit of Higher Education

What fitness professionals should know about going back to school in the 21st century.

By Biray Alsac, MS
Jun 30, 2011

“I want to take [my education] to the next level and do some type of study in fitness,” said the Facebook message from IDEA member Melissa Spraul, a group fitness instructor in Los Angeles. Her passion for fitness is clear from all the workshops and conventions she attends, but she wonders how to go about starting her academic career. “We have a lot of community colleges and universities out here, but I’m a little overwhelmed,” she wrote. “Can you provide any insight?”

Eight years ago I was in a similar position: part-time group fitness instructor with a full-time job in an unrelated field. I had wanted to change my professional direction but went back and forth on the idea of returning to school. Excuses abounded: “I won’t be able to afford it,” “It’s been so long since I’ve been in school” and “It will take months to complete all prerequisites (since my BA was in media arts).” Had I had more insight, I might not have delayed my enrollment into graduate school, which is what afforded me my career opportunities.

The thought of beginning or returning to postsecondary education, whether for a single course or an entire degree program, can be daunting. Beyond choosing a school or field of study, there are many factors to consider, such as the impact your studies will have on client training schedules, work-family balance and personal finances.

This article compiles recommendations from college and university faculty, career counselors and fellow fitness professionals (some sharing their own “back-to-school” stories) in hopes of highlighting today’s academic landscape and learning environments. It is not meant to be a “how-to” guide to graduate schools or choosing a degree program, but it can be an informative resource to encourage fitness professionals to explore educational opportunities in the academic sector.

As you read on, determine if the decision to pursue an advanced degree is for you and discover how to leverage your professional skills to help finance and market your education.

The Decision to Go Back to School

Formal education can give fitness professionals a competitive edge in advancing their careers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “people with degrees in fitness-related subjects will have better opportunities because clients prefer to work with people they perceive as higher-quality trainers” (BLS 2010).

“Make no mistake, a degree is a lot of work,” says Jason Karp, PhD, exercise physiologist, running coach and author of the practical guide How to Survive Your PhD (Sourcebooks 2009). Karp notes that people pursue degrees for various reasons—among them, status, acclaim, the pursuit of knowledge and research—but he stresses that “you have to really know what you want to accomplish in your career and then decide if a degree is the way to get there. If it’s speaking at conferences and writing books and articles, then yes, a degree may give you a certain level of authority.”

The number of adult learners or nontraditional students in school is increasing. By 2019, enrollment in postsecondary, degree-granting institutions will go up by 28% for students age 25–34 and by 22% for those 35 and older (NCES 2009). But before committing to hours of lectures, labs and late-night study sessions, consider mapping out your professional P.A.T.H. to see if school is right for you.

P: Preview Your Professional Career

Visualize yourself 2–5 years from now in your ideal job. What credentials are needed to achieve the next level of work (e.g., a degree in physical education or exercise science)? Which skills are essential to furthering your research? Check job boards and career portals to learn what specializations will help you qualify for your ideal positions.

“Before I started my postdoctorate degree, I decided that I wanted to be an expert in the area of endurance physiology,” Karp says. “When people wanted to talk to the best running coaches in America, I wanted to be the one in those conversations. I knew the degree would open those doors for me.”

A: Access Key People in Your Field of Interest

Find professionals and professors in your area of interest, and begin a dialogue. How did they get into the field? What kinds of courses do they teach or topics do they study—do those appeal to you? At the very least, these conversations can offer insights into other career paths. At most, they can refine your search for ideal academic programs or institutions. Check college websites for detailed descriptions of programs and faculty.

T: Take Inventory of Experiences and Certifications

Ask academic advisors how industry certifications can count toward a degree program, certificate series or course prerequisites. You may not have to start your academic career from scratch, even if your previous experiences or undergraduate studies were in unrelated fields. Your field experiences can help frame your studies to meet real-world applications.

H: Have a Holistic Approach to Change

Weigh the pros and cons of college and its potential impact on all areas of life. Develop a plan that minimizes the effects of going back to school and maximizes the outcomes of your education. Do you have support people in place? Is there a financial plan? What commitments can you cancel or postpone to make room for school?

“Education is definitely costly, both financially and emotionally,” says Marvin Chapman, a personal trainer and physical therapist paying for school with part-time work and student loans. Both he and his wife are students and have decided to put ‘life’ goals on hold in order to complete their education. “We do struggle financially and are often overwhelmed with our workloads, yet we encourage each other and press onward.” Chapman is pursuing his master’s in exercise physiology at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Choosing the Right Learning Environment

As a fitness professional, you have a lot of options when choosing a learning environment to suit your budget, lifestyle and learning preferences. The questions below clarify the choices available to trainers and fitness instructors.

Should I Attend a 4-Year College or University or a Community College?

The main differences between universities and colleges are typically cost, location and program offerings. Attending a community college costs approximately one-third less than attending a university (NCES 2010), and you can often find a campus within an hour’s drive from your home (AACC 2011). Community colleges offer a range of classes, professional certificates and associate’s degrees that help build foundational knowledge, whereas 4-year colleges and universities may go further, offering specialized seminars and advanced-degree programs with greater research opportunities.

Should I Enroll as a Non-Degree-Seeking Student Until I Decide to Pursue a Degree?

“For fitness professionals who want to expand their knowledge or learn new skills, community colleges can provide a place to explore new subject areas, connect more intimately with faculty and still be affordable,” says Greg Mahadeen, adjunct faculty in the health science department at Brookdale Community College in Tinton Falls, New Jersey. He encourages personal trainers to take courses in nutrition, business, marketing, writing and public speaking to help bring value to their client services. For those who maintain their certifications and attend workshops and conventions, a 2-year associate’s degree in exercise science, for instance, may be redundant. In this case, fitness professionals may prefer upper-division courses at a 4-year college or university.

For those testing the academic waters, the costs of college applications can be a major deterrent (entrance exams, submission fees, etc.). But enrolling as a non-degree-seeking student can alleviate some immediate upfront costs so you can register for the undergraduate or graduate courses that interest you. If you decide to transition into a degree-seeking student, most institutions will apply a portion of course credits toward their programs. Bear in mind that non-degree-seeking students may not get priority during registration or qualify for financial aid. Even if you decide a degree path is not for you, remember you can still apply to earn continuing-education credits for college-level courses.

Should I Consider Online Courses Over On-Campus Courses Given My Work Schedule?

In 2007, about 66% of all higher-education institutions (2-year and 4-year, public and private) offered distance-education courses (NCES 2008), a trend that is expected to grow, given the student demand and advancements in instructional technologies (Chronicle of Higher Education 2010). Online courses may displace the fixed time and location of a class, but convenience should not be the sole consideration. Like face-to-face classes, Web-based courses vary greatly in design and utilize multiple instructional strategies (Cook 2007). But if you have a busy training schedule, consider taking hybrid or blended courses, which combine the online experience with onsite instruction.

James Camastra, a personal trainer in New York, received his master’s degree in exercise science from California University of Pennsylvania’s Global Online program. “I chose the online route because my business was too successful to warrant the time to physically go to class.” The online environment allowed him to take his education at an individual pace so he could also facilitate the opening of his own gym.

Making the Transition From Education to Employment (Again)

The experience that fitness professionals gain from higher education is as much about expanding their knowledge base as it is about ensuring that their academic investment “pays off” as they return to work, or continue working, as graduates. How well fitness professionals utilize their campus resources may shape the way they rebrand and market their postcollege careers.

College internships can help fitness professionals open doors to new prospects in the workplace. Depending on the degree program or institution, internships may be integrated into the curriculum or taken as a supplemental part of the educational experience. “Most fitness professionals have the ability to personal train, coach and teach group fitness,” says Natalie Johnson, internship coordinator and manager of Health & Lifestyle Programs at Manatee Choice Health Network in Bradenton, Florida. “But they should use an internship opportunity to investigate possible areas of expertise that will make them unique as a professional in the field.”

Fitness professionals with current experience in health clubs, fitness studios and athletic training centers can transfer those skills to an internship in hospitals and medical fitness facilities, corporate organizations and resort or spa industries where the roles for fitness or wellness professionals are growing. “With healthcare reform and the Baby Boomer generation, there will be an abundance of opportunities in medical fitness over the next few years,” Johnson says, adding that internship sites often hire from current and previous employee pools.

In addition to internships, some colleges and universities sponsor small-business incubators and offer funding for innovative student start-ups. The spirit of entrepreneurship is alive on college campuses—just ask 2010 Global Student Entrepreneurship Award winner Brent Skoda, who founded College Fitness (, a multimedia fitness-related social networking group for students, while still pursuing his undergraduate degree. Fitness professionals can capitalize on these monies, couple their efforts with those of fellow students and launch the next fitness product or company before graduation.

“A degree is not enough,” says Amy Adams, the Career Center director at Pepperdine University’s Sever College in Malibu, California. “Employers are looking for candidates who are not only educated but have proven success through work experience and a willingness to grow.” Adams encourages fitness professionals to contact their institution’s career services to polish their resumés, prepare for interviews, check job postings and apply for mentorship programs. One tip she offers graduates: “Change your mindset from what you can ‘get’ from [people] to what you can ‘give’ instead.”

Fitness professionals who achieve greater levels of knowledge may increase their opportunities to educate clients, colleagues and community through publications, presentations, speaking engagements and workshops. “After I graduate I would like to share my knowledge with the trainers at [my club] in order to develop a more comprehensive group of fitness professionals,” says Karlton Meadows, who at age 40, dual-enrolled at the American Military University and the University of Tampa in Florida, is finishing his bachelor’s degree in sports and health sciences. “I want to see professionals intelligently train the growing number of obese children, teens, young adults and Baby Boomers so we can reverse the negative impacts of sedentary lifestyles.” He expects to start his master’s in exercise science and health promotion in January 2012.

Many Degrees of Success

Going back to school can be a grand endeavor, regardless of age or experience. But it may not be the path for everyone. Last year personal trainer Liz DiAlto began her graduate program in exercise science at George Washington University. After 3 months, DiAlto transitioned to pursue a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) certification, instead. “My passion lies in training women, not athletes, which was what my graduate program was geared toward,” says DiAlto, who now runs her own online personal training business. DiAlto is not opposed to pursuing advanced degrees, but wishes she had done more research into programs before choosing her school. Fortunately, she attributes passing her CSCS exam to some of her academic courses.

By 2019, the numbers of bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees are projected to increase by 23%, 34% and 54%, respectively (NCES 2009). Whether you return to school part-time or full-time, complete one course or an advanced degree, the decision is yours to make. I was inspired by the various career possibilities in the fitness industry once I went back to graduate school. Now I am part of the exercise science faculty at two colleges, advising incoming students of their career possibilities.

To all fitness pros who harbor thoughts about pursuing higher education, I hope this article furthers your conversations on this topic and encourages you to explore all of your academic choices.

Making School Financially Friendly

Most institutions offer scholarships, student loans and financial aid to offset the costs of an education. However, fitness professionals bring a unique set of skills and expertise that may come in handy when looking to lower their enrollment costs. Peg Hamlett, fitness director at the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho, suggests coupling the learning experience with employment in campus recreation and exercise science departments.

Join the Recreation Center Team

Take a staff position at the campus fitness center or recreation department. Most rec centers offer the standard group exercise classes and personal-training opportunities to students. “The pay is competitive or above the local average and may include benefits, such as professional growth opportunities or insurance,” Hamlett says. Pick up extra classes or clients and make efficient use of the time on campus. Go to


AACC (American Association of Community Colleges). 2011. Institutional Characteristics of Community Colleges.; retrieved Apr. 5, 2011.
BLS (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). 2010 Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition.; retrieved Apr. 5, 2011.
Chronicle of Higher Education. 2010. Online learning: By the numbers. Chronicle of Higher Education; retrieved Apr. 5, 2011.
Cook, D. 2007. Web-based learning: Pros, cons and controversies. Clinical Medicine & Research, 7, 37–42.
NCES (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics). 2008. Distance Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions: 2006-07 (NCES 2009-044).; retrieved Apr. 5, 2011.
NCES (U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics). 2009. Projections of Education Statistics to 2019, Sections 5c and 6b.; retrieved Apr. 5, 2011.
NCES (U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics). 2010. Digest of Education Statistics, 2009 (NCES 2010-013), chapter 3.; retrieved Apr. 5, 2011.


Biray Alsac, MS

Biray Alsac, MS, is the owner of FITTmaxx Institute, a consulting company for health organizations and fitness/wellness professionals interested in learning how to integrate Web-based tools and interactive technologies (exergames) into their programming. She holds a masterÔÇÖs degree in exercise and wellness.
Certification: ACE
Education provider for: ACE

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