Guide to College Majors in Physical Education & Health

Good coaches teach respect for the opposition, love of competition, the value of trying your best, and how to win and lose graciously.
--Brooks Clark

What Is Physical Education and Health?

A physical education and health degree prepares students for a career in teaching and coaching classes related to:

  • general exercise
  • recreation
  • games
  • sports
  • fitness
  • nutrition
  • hygiene

Undergraduate degrees prepare teachers and coaches for grades K-12. Graduate degrees provide the credentials for teaching on a college level. Though some of the program content quite literally involves "fun and games," students seeking a physical education and health degree also enroll in serious academic courses on subjects such as kinesiology, morphology, and physiology (studies related to motion, body structure, and function). The science and art of teaching also play an important role in the curriculum for a physical education and health degree.

Trends for Physical Education and Health Careers

Given current American health trends, a physical education and health degree provides graduates with the opportunity to help a sedentary generation plagued with increasing obesity. Although academic demands once devalued physical education and health studies, statistics are inciting parents and teachers of the current generation of children and adolescents to encourage a more active, healthy lifestyle.

As a result, a physical education and health degree should only grow in importance. Educators place an increasing emphasis on integrating these disciplines more directly into their curriculum. In addition, leisure time for early retirees and senior citizens - a growing segment of the population - increases demand for graduates with career training in fitness, exercise and health.

Preparing for Physical Education and Health Studies

Before launching into a physical education and health degree program, a student should consider as many aspects of this career as possible. For instance, you might ask coaches and physical education/health teachers about the challenges and rewards of the job. Coaches do get to spend all their time on their favorite sport, but also work very long hours, both during the competitive season and the off-season, constantly preparing for the next cycle in the athletic calendar.

A physical education or health sciences curriculum will surprise some students. In addition to the expected course subjects, most programs include classes on the science of motion, function and body structure. The details of fitness, nutrition, and hygiene for health classes receive critical context through more complex courses in various sciences.

It helps to be a "people person" in this career. Instructing pupils in gym classes or on a field requires interpersonal skills like good communication, leadership, and discipline. While teachers in other subject areas may focus on a text or an abstract idea, instructors in physical education and health engage their students in an intense, dynamic way that cannot be scripted completely.

You should also consider the amount of public attention in the community that coaches often attract. Physical education and health majors should develop a level of comfort in the spotlight, especially when dealing with the news media, sports fans, booster clubs and other pressure points. Some professionals see these challenges as benefits, if not as job perks. Physical education and health graduates enjoy opportunities to make a difference in a community while teaching values of sportsmanship, leadership, teamwork, discipline, and courage.

Physical Education and Health Degree Programs

The variety of paths offered in this field continues to expand, thanks to a growing fitness industry. A number of national certification programs enable multiple points of entry to a physical education and health degree.

Online Degrees in Physical Education and Health

Students considering this path can take advantage of online degree programs in physical and health education, cutting down on campus commutes and residency requirements. These e-learning programs are particularly popular with working educators who don't want to step off the tenure track in order to earn their degrees. Online education in this field has expanded in recent years, offering more flexibility and lower residency requirements.

Even in this hands-on discipline, students can learn theory and study the most up-to-date health research from the comfort of their own homes. Graduates of these degree programs can count on strong career growth, since physical education and health degrees carry increasing importance in school curricula. Many online degree programs allow students to complete necessary residency and teaching requirements at nearby campuses or other facilities.

Certificate Programs in Physical Education and Health

A certificate program provides a course or a series of courses designed to qualify the recipient in a particular field, such as exercise science or sports management. For physical education and health, those holding a bachelor's degree in another subject may gain the requisite background to teach health education by entering a certificate program after completing courses on:

  • curriculum planning
  • mental health
  • disease
  • sexuality
  • various other health issues

In the burgeoning fitness industry, certificate programs in exercise science play an essential role in qualifying trainers for gyms. For teachers who received their degrees in other fields, a certificate program can qualify them to assist a school's athletic department in certain team sports or classes.

Associate Degrees in Health and Fitness

Associate degrees in physical education and health remain an option in a number of states, with some of the coursework available online. Community colleges often provide associate degrees to students who want to get a foothold in the workforce before returning to complete their bachelor's degrees in evening classes or online.

This route is practical for students who want to postpone the pursuit of a four-year degree. Such situations would apply to trainers seeking further qualifications or certifications, gym instructors and fitness leaders program leaders. Some health education venues, such as public outreach organizations, may also accept associate's degrees as sufficient qualification for teaching.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Health & Fitness Education

Although each college seems to offer a different title for this type of degree, the bachelor's degree in health and exercise generally equips graduates with the necessary tools to teach these subjects in K-12 classes. Experienced coaches can qualify for employment in college athletic departments with this degree alone, although master's degrees in topics like sport psychology or human movement might be preferred. Teaching college courses in this field requires an advanced degree in health education or a related field.

In addition to the core curriculum required of most college students, the physical education and health degree focuses on:

  • Learning how to analyze human performance
  • The effects of muscular and skeletal functions on performance
  • Kinesiology (human movement studies)

A physical education and health degree can qualify the graduate for state certification to teach classes from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Some high-demand school districts even seek signed letters of intent from final-semester students prior to graduation. In some institutions, students may pursue a specialization in recreation, a category growing in demand over the past decades as municipalities hire workers to coordinate recreational activities in parks and other facilities.

What Can You Do With a Physical Education and Health Major?

Teaching

From kindergarten to college, a physical education and health degree qualifies graduates to teach. Instruction involves not only gym or field time but often classroom instruction, depending on your specialty. Demand for online teaching grows every semester, affording talented instructors the opportunity to expand their scope by producing webcasts and videos of their lectures.

Coaching

At one time or another, many teachers with a physical education and health degree find themselves coaching. While coaches enjoy many rewards, the hours are long. Often, teachers who coach receive supplemental pay for their extra time. At the college level, coaches can receive significant compensation packages and job perks.

Training

Beyond the training required in both individual and team sports, physical education graduates may work as trainers in private gyms, aerobic centers, recreation centers and many other establishments. Their education in performance analysis and movement study provides invaluable aid to trainees in any locale.

Performance Analysis

Many amateur and professional athletes search for an instructor or mentor or trainer who can break down their performance into its various components and analyze how they can increase speed or find more efficiency in their movements. A physical education and health degree can supply the required skills for this function.

Sports and Recreation Management

With a recreation or leisure studies degree, a graduate can coordinate of the myriad activities at a sports or recreation center, as well as in a municipal recreation program.

Research

Especially at the doctoral level, a physical education and health degree can launch a research career. This career track appears most often in the field of kinesiology, or study of human movement.

Other Specialties

These include activities director, camp director, nutrition specialist, occupational exercise scientist, spa/health club manager, corporate fitness instructor, rehabilitation specialist, and many more.

Certification, Licensure and Associations

Before they can teach at the K-12 level, physical education and health majors must still participate in the usual certification processes required in their state and district. In addition, they may be required to receive special certification for some teaching or coaching jobs related to health or sports.

In addition to earning general teaching certification, physical education and health majors can earn certifications in a variety of specialized areas. For example, if a student minors in athletic coaching, he or she would meet requirements to take the American Coaching Effectiveness Program Level I Certification Exam. Whenever possible, students should cover all the possible courses providing the prerequisites for certification or licensure exams or processes.

Many states have professional associations for teachers specializing in physical education and health. These and other associations provide teachers with the information and encouragement necessary to endure the challenges of their profession on an ongoing basis. Some of the national organizations for coaches and trainers include:

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