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What is an Exercise Physiologist?

What do exercise physiologists do
Photo: What is an Exercise Physiologist?
An exercise physiologist is an allied health professional with extensive training in understanding the body's response to exercise.

They are much more than a personal trainer or gym instructor.  Exercise physiologists are tertiary educated, with extensive of knowledge about the human body and the benefit that exercise has on it, both mentally and physically.

“This is not just in regard to fitness but more specifically in the context of injury, chronic disease, pain and disability,” says exercise physiologist Tim Douge.

“Exercise physiologists apply their knowledge with a therapeutic approach aiming to improve quality of life, disease management or treatment outcomes across all populations.”

This skill set allows them to work in a variety of settings including hospitals, medical centres, community care organisations, occupational rehabilitation, sports teams and community fitness centres.
“Exercise physiologists work with any people who may be affected by a number of conditions including heart disease, stroke, neurological conditions, COPD, diabetes, chronic pain, metal health conditions, post-operative rehab, cancer, arthritis, osteoporosis as well as many others.

“It is generally accepted that some physical activity is essential for the vast majority of people therefore any person who is looking to exercise for the first time or start again after a long time should visit and exercise physiologist to ensure they are choosing the right type of exercise for their body and their health.”

How does an EP differ from a physiotherapist?

While there are areas of overlap in which physiotherapists and exercise physiologist perform similar roles, the most successful treatment options for patients will have these two professions working together.

“The training of a physiotherapist has a heavy emphasis on the diagnosis and assessment of disease and disability states within the body, as such much of their treatment revolves around the acute reduction of symptoms,” says Mr Douge.

“Exercise physiologists have a greater emphasis on increasing functional capacities and quality of life over a longer period of time with a focus on chronic disease management.

Physiotherapists use a lot of ‘hands-on’ treatment methods like massage to assist their patients, whereas exercise physiologist are predominantly ‘hands-off’, using only exercise to generate a therapeutic or performance outcome.

Because of the successful nature of their collaboration, a number of universities offer dual degrees in physiotherapy and exercise physiology.

How to become an Exercise Physiologist?

The clinical exercise physiology degree is a four-year university course which provides the basic knowledge for the profession.

Because it is an evidence based, scientific degree, plus the pace at which treatment research is completed, exercise physiologists must complete mandatory levels of further education each year to maintain their accreditation to practice.

If the university of your choice doesn’t offer a degree course called Exercise Physiology, there are other courses you can undertake instead.  For instance, at some universities the relevant course may be called Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science, or Bachelor of Applied Science and may only be a three year degree course.

Once you have completed your degree course, you can then apply for membership to ESSA.

The scope of an exercise physiologist is very broad and career paths will often be determined by specific interests and further study.

They may work in public health implementing community policy, with the general population in small or large gyms, with elite sports teams, disability care organisations, private practice, workplace and corporate health or in primary care with GP's and in hospitals. 

A growing profession

As the population, especially the elderly population, increases, exercise physiologists will be in demand for years to come. 

“Exercise physiology is a relatively young profession and is considered quite small with just over 6000 accredited exercise physiologists in Australia, this number has been growing steadily each year however at rate between 10-15 per cent per year,” says Mr Douge.

Exercise physiology suits people with a general interest in health and fitness and a naturally caring disposition.

While a background in a broad range of physical activity is incredibly helpful, successful exercise physiologists also have to have excellent personal skills as they often work with their patients over a number of months if not years.

“Research within the field is evolving very quickly so it is also important for an exercise physiologist to have a thirst for growth and learning,” says Mr Douge.

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.