This post was written by one of our contributors; Assistant Professor in Sport and Exercise Science – Bryna Chrismas
To comprehend what exercise physiology is we need to understand the words ‘exercise’ and ‘physiology’; some history will help us.
The word ‘exercise’ originates from the Latin word exercitius, which means to ‘drive forth’, and ‘physiology’ is derived from the Greek word physiologia, meaning ‘natural science’. Exercise and physical activity although often used interchangeably, are two separate concepts. Exercise is any planned or structured, repetitive movement with a specific goal of improving or maintaining fitness. Physical activity, on the other hand, can be any bodily movement that results in the use of energy such as walking up the stairs, or mowing the lawn.
The importance of exercise and its role in society is not a modern concept. as Plato (an ancient Greek philosopher) famously said…
“Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it”.Plato (429 – 247 B.C.)
Additionally, Hippocrates (460 – 370 B.C.) noted:
“Positive health requires a knowledge of man’s primary constitution and of the powers of various foods, both those natural to them and those resulting from human skill. But eating alone is not enough for health. There must also be exercise, of which the effects must likewise be known. The combination of these two things makes regimen, when proper attention is given to the season of the year, the changes of the wind, the age of the individual, and the situation of his home. If there is any deficiency in food or exercise, the body will fall sick “.Hippocrates (460 – 370 B.C.)
What job role would a modern day exercise physiologist perform?
Exercise physiology plays an important role in several aspects of a i) sporting, ii) military, and iii) clinical occupation. For example:
- Risk stratification for clinical and surgical operations
- Diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation within the military
- Prevention and treatment of non-communicable diseases (e.g. certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes)
- Prevention and treatment of mental health, and Alzheimer’s disease
- Performance and recovery of athletes
i) Exercise physiology in a sporting environment:
An exercise physiologist may work as part of an interdisciplinary team to enhance sport performance, attenuate fatigue, and improve recovery in athletes. Elite sports teams, governing bodies, and high performance centres (e.g. English Institute of Sport) may employ an exercise physiologist to conduct athlete testing and monitoring. Such data (e.g. biochemical, perceptual, performance) can be provided to coaches and support team members, to understand the performance and recovery of athletes.
ii) Exercise physiology in a clinical environment:
Exercise and/or physical activity can help prevent and/or treat non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as certain types of cancers2, type 2 diabetes3 and cardiovascular disease4; in addition to Alzheimer’s disease5, depression6, anxiety7, and aging (see Figure 1). An exercise physiologist may develop and conduct fitness and health testing on patients as part of surgical risk assessment, and post-operative rehabilitation. In the future, I would like to see exercise physiologist working alongside general practitioners to prescribe exercise and physical activity as part of lifestyle medicine.
Figure 1: Effects of physical activity on ageing. Taken from @exerciseworks twitter account
iii) Exercise physiology in a military environment:
Within the military and other government organisations (e.g. NASA), an exercise physiologist may be responsible for coordinating and conducting fitness assessments and programs. Additionally, they may implement laboratory protocols to assess the health of recruits and soldiers, producing technical reports and presentations.
Specific job roles for an exercise physiologist in a sports, clinical or military occupation may include:
- Elite sport physiologist
- Clinical exercise physiologist
- Aerospace physiologist
- Personal trainer
- Strength and conditioning coach
- Exercise instructor
- Research assistant/associate
How can I become an exercise physiologist?
Firstly, I would recommend an undergraduate degree in a Sport and Exercise Science related field. There are numerous options within the UK. Secondly, obtaining as much practical experience as possible is essential. Several undergraduate degrees now offer placements or sandwich years, however, continuous work placed based experiences will be a huge benefit.
Additionally, while at university volunteering for research projects, conferences, workshops and events will provide you with the necessary foundation to obtain further certification and accreditation (this will depend on what career you are interested in, and in what country). For example, in the UK the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES; https://www.bases.org.uk/), offer student membership and supervised experience, which aims to provide the necessary skills and training for you to apply for accreditation upon graduation. BASES accreditation may be something that a future employer would require.
(1) Ivy, J.L. (2007) Exercise Physiology: A Brief History and Recommendations Regarding Content Requirements for the Kinesiology Major, Quest, 59:1, 34-41. DOI 10.1080/00336297.2007.10483534
(2) Winzer, B.M., Whiteman, D.C., Reeves, M.M., Paratz, J.D. (2011) Physical activity and cancer prevention: a systematic review of clinical trials. Cancer Causes Control, 22 (6) 811-826. DOI 10.1007/s10552-011-9761-4
(3) Aune, D., Norat, T., Leitzmann, M., Tonstad, S., Vatten, L.J. (2015) Phsyical activity and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematics review and dose-response meta-analysis. European Journal of Epidemiology., 30 (7), 529-542. DOI: 10.1007/s10654-015-0056-z
(4) Stensel, D.(2009). Primary prevention of CVD: physical activity. British Medical Journal Clinical Evidence.
(5) Stephen, R., Hongisto, K., Solomon, A., Lonnroos, E. (2017) Physical Activity and Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review. Journal of Gerontology A Biol Science Medicince Science 1:72 (6), 733-739. DOI 10.1093/Gerona/glw251
(6) Mammen, G., Faulkner, G. (2013) Physical activity and the prevention of depression: a systematic review of prospective studies. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 45 (5), 649-657. DOI 10.1016/j.amepre.2013.08.001
(7) Stonerock, G.L., Hoffman, B.M., Smith, P.J., Blumenthal, J.A. (2016) Exercise as Treatment for Anxiety: Systematic Review and Analysis. Annals of Behaviour Medicine, 49(4), 542-556. DOI 10.1007/s12160-014-9685-9