An exercise physiologist can either work within a clinical setting or within sports science, with physiology crossing over into medicine. As a clinical physiologist, the role entails assisting patients with chronic conditions such as COPD, heart disease and diabetes, through the medium of advised exercise. Physiologists offer rehabilitation methods to treat the dysfunction of conditions and diseases, and look at the acute pathophysiological responses of patients to physical activity.
Within sports science, an exercise physiologist works within both amateur and professional sport to provide scientific support, whether in one sport or several. The physiologist aims to boost fitness levels and performance, and maintain health, through the analysis of individuals using evaluation tools. Assessment of baseline physical measurements are taken such as cardiovascular and pulmonary function, metabolism, biomechanics and muscle balance, and individualised exercise prescriptions can be tailored to improve identified areas, achieve goals and prepare for competitions. Exercise programmes are then monitored in terms of how individuals respond and adapt, and changes can be made accordingly. Depending upon the nature of the role, the physiologist may also carry out daily measurements such as hydration status, body composition and muscular power or strength.
Physiologists are likely to work as part of a multi-disciplinary team, and therefore being able to work collaboratively is of high importance.
• Technical knowledge of human anatomy and physiology
• The ability to effectively communicate the concepts of exercise physiology to athletes and patients, coaches and other health and exercise professionals. To also be able to work and communicate within a multi-disciplinary team.
• Being able to balance and prioritise workload, and work around the competition season for teams and athletes where necessary
• To accurately perform physical and functional assessments, and proficiently use and interpret evaluation tools in areas such as respiration, cardiovascular and aerobic fitness. Specialist equipment and resources are used such as aqua pacers, body composition pods, osmometers and metabolic carts and douglas bags
• To be able to write exercise prescriptions based on individual assessments, monitor them, and build individual physiological profiles to enable long-term development
• The ability to facilitate behaviour changes and motivate
• Educate patients in terms of the management of chronic diseases, and the prevention of further conditions, and promote the benefits of exercise. To educate athletes and coaches surrounding principles such as heart rate monitoring, hydration strategies, recovery, and acclimatisation
• To be abreast of current scientific research methods, and to evaluate current methods
• To be able to make decisions
• To understand how to apply and adapt physiology in clinical settings, laboratories and in the field
To become an exercise physiologist, the minimum requirement is a BSc degree in a relevant human physiology course applied for though the UCAS pathway. For clinical exercise physiology, typical degrees may or may not differ from those studied for exercise physiology in sport.
Typical degrees for clinical exercise physiology may include:
• Human Bioscience
• Biological Science
• Public health and medicine
To study sport and exercise physiology, a degree in sports science or a closely related subject, broadly covering the areas of biomechanics, psychology and physiology is required. Some courses are endorsed by The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) which have a curriculum and resources that are suitable for careers in sports science.
As there is high competition for careers in exercise physiology, it is desirable to have a Masters degree or PhD in a relevant physiology area, and to have gained paid or unpaid work experience.
Many exercise physiologists gain accreditation with BASES as a sport and exercise scientist which requires following the BASES Supervised Experience (SE). This either requires a relevant post-graduate qualification or significant experience to gain a similar level of knowledge. Alongside this, 500 hours of supervised experience must be achieved, and the attendance at several BASES workshops. Once accreditation through this process has been achieved, the title of ‘BASES Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist’ can be used.
As a progression, exercise physiologists can earn the title of Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist (Physiology). To be able to do this, it is necessary to gain accreditation by BASES. It is a requirement to hold a degree in a relevant subject, and have a post-graduate qualification such as a Masters degree in combination with relevant experience. It is also necessary to demonstrate and evident a competence to working with clients, to have presented at conferences or workshops on relevant topics, and to have followed a programme of appropriate continued professional development (CPD).
Exercise physiologists can also take further courses to either be more specialist in one areas, or broaden their knowledge. As a clinical exercise physiologist for example, it may be preferable to specialise in cardiac rehabilitation, and therefore work towards a qualification as a ‘BACPR (British Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation) Specialist Exercise Instructor Level 4’. As a sport and exercise physiologist, further qualifications can not only improve skills and knowledge, but can also provide opportunities to diversity and work with a larger client group. A qualification as a Personal Trainer could be an avenue on which to do this, or a qualification in strength training such as a ‘Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist’ run through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NCSA).
Pros and cons
• Able to build own schedule around own commitments.
• Able to work in different workplaces
• Multifaceted role
• Improving the health of patients, helping athletes achieve their goals, and improving quality of life.
• The opportunity to become professionally accredited
• Likelihood of working unsociable hours
• Competitive industry
• Career progression may take time, and be costly with qualifications unless sponsored or able to receive a grant
• The responsibility of designing individually tailored exercise programmes for patients that have chronic diseases so not to worsen symptoms or cause harm
Newly qualified exercise physiologists can earn in the region of £18,00 and £20,000, and with accreditation can earn up to £35,000. Highly experienced physiologists, and those working in high-profile sport science or prominent companies, may earn salaries in the region of £60,000 – £110,000.