Wellness Industry Is Looking Strong

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 5, 2006

The headlines are depressing: Rising obesity rates in children and adults. Growing health concerns among aging baby boomers, the oldest of whom turn 60 this year. Skyrocketing health care costs putting pressure on businesses and employers.

But all of these trends also mean a booming wellness industry with expanding opportunities for job seekers. "We're expecting consistent double-digit growth" in jobs in the health and fitness sectors over the next several years, said John A. Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc., a Chicago outplacement firm.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that fitness and recreation center jobs will increase 27 percent over the next decade, to total employment of up to 613,981 in 2014 from 485,200 in 2004. More generally, health care and social assistance jobs are projected to grow 30 percent, to 18.5 million from 14.2 million

When Silver Spring resident Casey Korba, 30, attained her master of science degree in health promotion management from American University last summer, she started what she thought might be a lengthy search for a position at a Washington area nonprofit organization that would focus on nutrition, physical fitness or obesity issues. To her surprise, she landed a job in less than three weeks as program manager in public health and prevention at the District-based America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade association, where her work centers on strategies to deal with obesity. "I was not expecting to get a job so soon," she said. "I was open to different jobs, but picky."

Today, companies, hospitals, health care providers, research groups and even universities and community centers are hiring professionals to run and oversee wellness programs that deal with smoking cessation, management of diabetes, weight loss and other health issues, said Anastasia Snelling, associate professor at American University's National Center for Health Fitness, one of the oldest health-promotion programs in the nation. (It was established in 1980.)

Wellness jobs also include personal trainers, aerobics and pilates instructors, managers, researchers, Web site designers, newsletter writers and registered dietitians.

To succeed at health promotion, it's important to feel passionately that you "want to make a difference in the health of our society," Snelling said. But she added that as the field has grown, so, too, has the importance of having academic credentials. Bachelor's and master's degrees that can lead to a wellness career are offered in fields such as exercise physiology, exercise science, health promotion management, fitness management, corporate wellness and kinesthesiology, as well as in traditional health care fields such as nursing.

To increase your hiring potential, seek certification in a specific health or fitness area, such as group fitness instruction or lifestyle and weight management, said Scott Hankosky, who runs the Web site Healthandwellnessjobs.com, which posts jobs and internships. He noted that many certification classes are available online or as self-study programs.

But be careful before leaping into certification and degree programs, advised Liz Neporent, contributing editor at Pennsylvania-based Prevention Magazine. "All credentials are not created equal," she said. Therefore, it's wise to research different career paths and talk to people within that field to find out which credentials are required for jobs that interest you. You can learn more and enhance your credibility to potential employers by joining a professional group such as the Medical Wellness Association, Hankosky said.

While in school or afterward, apply for an internship. "It's a good way to get your foot in the door, build your résumé, and really get a feel for what a job entails," Neporent said.

Salaries for health-promotion and fitness jobs vary widely, from about $25,000 for a fitness instructor to about $50,000 or $60,000 for the director of a medical wellness center, said Hankosky. Geographic region and type of facility are two variables, he said, but he noted that the Washington area is one of the higher-paying regions.

Wellness jobs usually won't make you rich, but they offer high satisfaction, Neporent said. "For a person who specializes in weight loss, it's cool to know you helped someone lose 100 pounds," she said. "Will you make what a movie star makes? No, but at the end of the day, you really do help people."

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