Most people can identify with at least some of the common health and lifestyle challenges of the 21st Century—a chronic illness, sedentary lifestyle or mental health conditions. Most of us know that exercise is a key strategy for improving these conditions but often lack the inspiration, motivation or guidance to safely integrate exercise for effective management of our health conditions. That’s where exercise physiologists come in.
Exercise physiologists work with individuals and groups to promote safe exercise and physical activity to optimise physical and general health.
The support of an exercise physiologist can offer improved mental, emotional, social, as well as physical health outcomes for clients, as well as lifelong education, targeted rehabilitation and therapeutic programs to enhance quality of life.
What do exercise physiologists do?
Exercise physiologists, known as clinical exercise physiologists in some countries, are important members of multidisciplinary healthcare teams. They work with people of all ages, life stages, and with a vast array of health conditions and reasons for seeking their services. Using their in-depth knowledge of exercise science and pathophysiology, they help people to prevent and manage chronic and complex health conditions and injuries. Exercise physiologists also support people with disabilities to facilitate optimal exercise and physical function to enhance quality of life.
People may be referred to an exercise physiologist for management of various health conditions, including:
- Diabetes or pre-diabetes
- Cardiovascular disease
- Neurological conditions (e.g., multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease)
- Musculoskeletal conditions (e.g., arthritis, osteoporosis, and acute injuries)
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Post-surgical rehabilitation.
Exercise physiologists can receive referrals to support people living with mental health conditions, for example depression, anxiety, and distress. They also work with older people living independently at home and in residential aged care settings, to improve and maintain their physical function and reduce the risk of potentially debilitating falls.
Exercise physiologists deliver a range of clinical services to their clients, including the collaborative development of safe, evidence-based exercise plans, lifestyle-related education and advice to improve overall health status, as well as functional and workplace assessments. They also make referrals to other members of the healthcare team as appropriate, for example, to an accredited practicing dietitian, psychologist, social worker, or occupational therapist, to ensure comprehensive person-centred care.
Where do exercise physiologists work?
Exercise physiologists work in a range of health settings including hospitals, community health centres, private multidisciplinary clinics, general practice, rehabilitation, and aged care settings. They also work in non-clinical settings, including government organisations, research institutions and academic settings, fitness centres, gymnasiums, sporting clubs and community-based sports organisations.
Exercise physiology is a comparatively young allied health profession, and is not yet established in many countries. They currently work in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and the USA. Sweden has recently established its first exercise physiology bachelor degree program, so it is expected that the profession will become more recognised in northern and other parts of Europe.
Important character traits of exercise physiologists
A good exercise physiologist has in-depth knowledge of human pathology, physiology and the range of acute and chronic health conditions that are impacted by (and impact) exercise and physical function. The ability to effectively communicate the role of exercise in preventing and managing various health conditions is important for exercise physiologists.
They must also be capable of demonstrating a range of exercises, stretches, and other physical movements to their clients to promote safe and effective supervised (and non-supervised) exercise. A person’s ability to exercise is influenced by more than their physical condition, so exercise physiologists must be able to tune in to their clients’ emotional, mental, and social health status.
Exercise physiologists must also have impressive organisational skills, to be able to plan and run group sessions, develop exercise plans, communicate with members of a multidisciplinary team, and keep up with documentation related to client goals, management plans, and progress.
What are the professional education and regulatory frameworks for exercise physiologists?
In Australia, exercise physiologists complete a four-year bachelor degree in exercise accredited by Exercise and Sports Science Australia. Aspiring exercise physiologists undertake clinical practice throughout their degree and have the option of completing a masters level course. Some go on to complete a doctorate, or PhD in exercise physiology—this can be a pathway into an academic exercise physiology career.
In New Zealand, exercise physiologists complete a postgraduate course in exercise physiology and a minimum of 360 hours of professional practice. In the UK, clinical exercise physiologists complete an undergraduate degree in sport and exercise science, followed by a master’s degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology (or similar) in order to become eligible for registration with the Registration Council for Clinical Physiologists.
In Canada and the USA, exercise physiologists must attain a bachelor’s degree at minimum, with many employers favouring candidates with master’s level qualifications.
Exercise physiologists are self-regulated in all the countries they currently work in.
Exercise physiology is an emerging profession and demand for these allied health professionals is tipped to grow exponentially along increasing rates of chronic and complex health conditions globally.
In Australia, the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme has led to increased funding and opportunities for people living with a disability to engage exercise physiologists as part of their management and support plans.
People who have had COVID-19 may experience ongoing effects of the virus that limit exercise capacity. Exercise physiologists therefore have an important role to play in supporting safe exercise for many people living with post-COVID-19 symptoms, including those with long COVID.
Find out more about exercise physiologists
Here are some links to websites and resources for and about exercise physiologists:
- American College of Sports Medicine
- American Society of Exercise Physiologists
- Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology
- Clinical Exercise Physiology UK
- Exercise & Sports Science Australia
- Registration Council for Clinical Physiologists UK
- Sport and Exercise Science New Zealand
If you have questions about the exercise physiology profession, or if you wish to share your experiences as an exercise physiologist, please leave a comment below.
If you offer professional development or business support services for exercise physiologists or their employers, please list your business on our Service Directory.
AHP Workforce provides allied health workforce planning, strategy and consulting for employers, managers and public sector stakeholders. For allied health workforce solutions, contact us today.