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Have You Thought About Exercise Psychology?

Sean Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.
John F. Kennedy University

As a young academic, I have been fortunate to interview or speak with a number of individuals who are considering graduate training in Sport and Exercise Psychology. Most come from psychology undergraduate programs and were athletes in high school or college. Many prospective consultants find the field in a happenstance manner: they were looking for additional units to take and found a Sport and Exercise Psychology elective (this is seemingly the story of most students); they had a professor, mentor, or other trusted advisor suggest the field (a handful of students); they were an athlete and had interactions with a Sport Psychology professional (this group is seemingly growing); or they found the field through a random internet search of their interests, which included sport and/or psychology (a surprisingly large number). Regardless of how one finds the field, most decide to pursue training because they have a passion for sport and are searching for a way to continue to be involved with it. I too was this student. I was an athlete (very loosely defined). I loved sport, and I knew I wanted to stick around it. Therefore, I choose Sport and Exercise Psychology as my major, not knowing what it really was.

Just as many find the larger field of Sport and Exercise Psychology in a happenstance manner, once in the field, many future professionals happen upon the Exercise Psychology specialty in a similar fashion. Again, I was one of those individuals. I took my first Exercise Psychology class as a junior - and only because it was required. Within just a few weeks, I was hooked. The question of why some individuals exercise and some do not fascinated me. From that day forward, while I still was passionate about Sport Psychology, I knew it was Exercise Psychology that would become my main focus. I have seen classmates take the same exact path after their first taste of work within the Exercise Psychology realm, and I have taught, supervised, and mentored students who have followed suit. For many within our field, just one exposure to an Exercise Psychology class or consulting experience is all it takes to become captivated.

Exercise Psychology professionals apply psychological principles to help individuals adopt and maintain physical activity (Lox, Martin Ginis, & Petruzzello, 2010). What draws many students to Exercise Psychology after having a singular focus on Sport Psychology is that much of exercise-related work includes utilizing the same performance psychology approaches to exercisers. Be it goal setting, working on motivation, or even using mindfulness techniques, work with exercisers often utilizes similar performance enhancement techniques used with athletes and other performers. The performance, in the case of Exercise Psychology, is adopting and/or maintaining physical activity as opposed to pitching a no-hitter or becoming a scratch golfer. While helping individuals perform better in any arena can be a rewarding experience for individuals in our field, helping someone improve their health by becoming more active is a large reason many are drawn to Exercise Psychology, and the transformations that some clients realize can be striking.

Unfortunately, there are currently many individuals who need to become more active. Over 50% of people within the U.S. do not meet the recommended levels of physical activity, and close to 25% partake in no leisure time activity (CDC, 2010). These statistics point to the fact that a great number of individuals could benefit from enhancing their physical activity 'performance.' Simply put, the ability to help others become more active is becoming increasingly valuable.

There are many reasons for pursuing Exercise Psychology, but perhaps the best reason is also the most pragmatic: there are jobs in Exercise Psychology. The number of jobs in this realm only continues to grow. Health insurance companies are hiring individuals with Exercise Psychology training as behavior coaches, positions I have seen a number of former students pursue and secure. The opportunity for private consultation is also growing. Applied Sport and Exercise Psychology professionals can work with gyms or other organizations, such as the YMCA, as exercise behavior specialists to help their clientele stay active. Corporate wellness positions are also becoming more common, and some students have even created their own jobs by proposing the need for a wellness program to companies that did not currently have one in place. Having Exercise Psychology training is also very valuable when seeking an academic position, as many Sport Psychology positions require teaching an Exercise Psychology course and a large number of positions are solely focused on the psychology of physical activity. Further, the potential for grant funding within Exercise Psychology is exponentially greater than that of Sport Psychology, and the opportunity to do collaborative work with other disciplines is vast. So, if you are a student interested in pursuing Exercise Psychology, what are your next steps?

• First and foremost, get to know the exercise world. Take a course in exercise physiology, public health, or kinesiology. Learn the lingo of the other professionals (e.g., personal trainers and exercise physiologists).

• Find a supervisor with an Exercise Psychology background and seek an applied Exercise Psychology internship. College recreation centers, local gyms, and YMCAs are all great places to look.

• Read the research. Do this tentatively at first. One of the first things that students in Exercise Psychology courses notice is how much larger the literature base is within the exercise realm - it can be overwhelming. Begin with a few pieces from Sport and Exercise Psychology journals or the recently published Oxford Handbook of Exercise Psychology (Acevedo, 2013) before broadening out to other health journals.

• Check out a few Exercise Psychology presentations at this year's AASP conference (e.g., the Health and Exercise Keynote by Dr. John Ratey promises to be very enlightening), join an Exercise Psychology special interest group, or speak with a Health and Exercise Psychology Committee member.

• Lastly, if available, take an Exercise Psychology course. Do not wait to 'run into' Exercise Psychology, seek it out. You never know, you just might walk away hooked.


Acevedo, E. O. (Ed.). (2012). The oxford handbook of exercise psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

CDC. (2010, February 09). U.S. physical activity statistics. Retrieved from

Lox, C. L., Martin Ginis, K. A., & Petruzzello, S. J. (2010). The psychology of exercise: Integrating theory and practice (3rd ed). Scottsdale, AZ: Holcomb Hathaway.