The Bigger Picture: The Role of Exercise Physiology in Long-term Health

This article is something a little bit different from our usual… We are taking a step back – outside of our niche area of exercise physiology in the insurance space – to look at the bigger picture of the value of exercise physiology. 

Nobody wants to be unwell. Being unwell comes at a huge expense; financially, personally and at a societal level. 

The financial implications at an individual level include loss of income from taking time off work, the expense of specialist appointments, medical procedures or ongoing medication. There is also the cost incurred by the insurance companies, for those fortunate enough to have insurance policies. And at a societal level, there is the cost paid by the healthcare system for government-funded treatment and therapy. 

The secondary consequences of chronic illness include things such as the potential for reduced mental health, other comorbid conditions, and the ripple effects within family and loved ones.

The good news is that many chronic health conditions can be improved, delayed, or prevented entirely by making long-term positive and sustainable lifestyle choices. That is where we, as exercise physiologists, do our best work!

We specialise in dealing with chronic conditions, and we are the masters when it comes to positive lifestyle changes. Exercise is such a powerful tool, particularly when coupled with nutrition, sleep, and stress management. We are huge advocates for the value of exercise for health! And when it comes with money savings… Are you interested?


The facts… And why things need to change.

This article is drawing on information from an article published in January 2021: The Role of the Clinical Exercise Physiologist in Reducing the Burden of Chronic Disease in New Zealand.

Let’s mull over some facts together… 


1. Chronic health conditions are on the rise. 

Chronic and degenerative conditions are a global epidemic, and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety are increasing. Both of these rose by 54% and 42%, respectively, from 1990 to 2013.”

This is a problem that’s not going anywhere soon… We are an aging population, living increasingly sedentary lives, as machines and robots do the hard work for us instead. The majority of people are busy, stressed, and rushing through life. We live for efficiency and convenience and rely on packaged or pre-made foods.

Society does not set us up for a long and healthy, disease-free life. We need to make conscious choices to intervene, every day, to set ourselves up for good health. It requires effort and it requires consistency… But the alternative is that years of unhealthy habits catch you up in the long term.

The societal cost of ill health is estimated at more than $100 million per condition or risk factor in New Zealand, every year. In Australia, preventable hospital admissions due to poorly managed chronic diseases count for $320 million spent by the health care system (1).

Ouch! No wonder the health system is groaning under the weight of it all! Ill health is a significant burden at a global level. Change is needed.  


2. Many of these conditions (and their expenses!) are preventable.

“A shift of focus within healthcare from rehabilitation to prevention is required, and urgently”.

If we continue to work within a model of ‘dealing with the symptoms’ rather than dealing with the problem, these numbers will only continue to increase. We need to direct our resources towards preventing these conditions from developing in the first place!

CVD (cardiovascular disease) and mental health problems are the main contributors to the global economic burden of NCDs (Non communicable Disease)”.

Risk factors for cardiovascular disease include being overweight, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high blood sugar levels / insulin resistance. To complicate things further, having a chronic health condition is a risk factor for developing a mental health condition, and having a mental health condition is a risk factor for developing other chronic health conditions such as cancer! Hmm. Downhill spiral??

The good news is that ALL of these risk factors can be significantly improved by regular exercise. 

“Incredible suffering could be avoided and trillions of dollars saved if a large proportion of the population were to engage in supportive health behaviors”.  (i.e. EXERCISE)

Exercise Physiology disease management prevention


3. Exercise Physiologists are the ideal candidates to reduce the global, national and personal disease burden – for a wide range of conditions.  

“They are allied health professionals specializing in delivering scientific exercise interventions for acute, subacute, or chronic medical conditions. These conditions include but are not limited to cardiovascular, respiratory, endocrine, musculoskeletal, mental, and neurological diseases”.

Exercise physiologists have an in-depth understanding of how to safely prescribe exercise and can design an exercise program that is mindful of the various comorbidities that often coexist within chronic health conditions.

For cardiovascular disease, exercise rehabilitation has been shown to be a more cost-effective approach than a stent! For individuals with severe mental health conditions, improving cardiovascular fitness is of great importance to prevent secondary conditions from developing – but this takes someone who knows how to manage the complexities of the condition.

But an effective therapeutic approach involves more than just prescribing exercises – it’s also about making sure that they are actually completed! There is evidence that exercise physiologists are able to more effectively translate exercise advice to individuals with chronic health conditions as opposed to simply receiving a recommendation by their physician, increasing their motivation to exercise. In type 2 diabetes patients for example, additional support is needed to help them to overcome the challenges that they often face in regards to initiating an exercise program and ongoing adherence. Exercise physiologists can provide this support.


The bottom line?

Exercise physiology interventions have been shown to reduce the financial burden of a wide range of chronic health conditions. But to really make the greatest impact on health, it’s time to make a shift from rehabilitation to prevention

It’s also important to say that despite working in a space where we are often reacting as opposed to preventing, we always have the long-term in mind! We think about the sustainability of our interventions and consider our clients’ health long into the future. 


Here is the link to the full article: 



Author: Yolanda van Vugt

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