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Are Exercise Physiology and Physio in Combat?

There are, obviously, quite a few similarities between the scope of a physio and the scope of an exercise physiologist. 

For example, we both deal with the musculoskeletal system. We both deal with pain management. We both provide exercises to strengthen and rehabilitate injured muscles. 

This overlap, or grey area between physio and exercise physiology, at times, can make it seem like the two professions are in competition with one another. Yet we’re not! In reality, physio and exercise physiology work best when working together as a team. 


Collaboration, Not Competition

We believe that there should be a natural progression from physio in the acute phase, to exercise physiology in the chronic phase, ideally with a slight period of cross-over in the middle. This articlewritten earlier last year – delineates between the two professions and their best time of input.

As exercise physiologists, we need the vital input of our physio friends to diagnose the condition. They have the tools in their belt to figure out exactly what’s going on and why. That’s why physios tend to have the first input – they provide the guiding light for us.

After making a diagnosis, they will get to work with the acute-phase treatment, providing passive therapy (such as manipulation, needling, massage, cupping) and hopefully progressing the client to active treatment (i.e. exercise) as soon as is appropriate. Simply as a consequence of the way that the system is set up, physio appointments tend to be shorter and therefore the scope is placed heavily and solely on the muscle or joint affected, in isolated movements (as is key in the acute phase of an injury). 

The strength of an exercise physiologist falls in the arena of chronic conditions. That includes any condition or injury that has persisted for 12 weeks or longer. By this point, we would have expected most conditions to have recovered, or to be close to it, provided that it hasn’t been re-injured along the way. Natural healing usually occurs within 12 weeks of the time of injury, so the space that we work in, is anytime that this isn’t the case for any reason.

If a client has plateaued and hasn’t yet returned to full capacity, we might start to wonder what other factors are at play to be hindering their recovery. As physiologists, we step back a little further and look at the whole picture (key in the chronic phase of an injury). 

Is the client adhering to their physio’s recommendations?

Are they completing their prescribed exercises often enough? 

Are they completing their exercises correctly?

Are there psychosocial factors or unhelpful beliefs that are contributing to their symptoms?

These tricky chronic conditions are exactly where we specialise – and it often involves looking beyond the confines of the gym or clinic room! We understand that there’s only so much that anyone can do within a 20-minute appointment… So why not lean on your exercise physiologist friends for a collaborative approach?


Why Transition to Exercise Physiology?

An exercise physiology program is just as much about lifestyle modification and behaviour change as it is about the exercise itself. The truth is that the exercises simply don’t work if they’re not being done correctly! We work to overcome any barriers to exercise adherence – whether it is due to fear of movement, lack of motivation to exercise, poor mental health, or simply not enough time in the day. 

We help to transition a client from the clinic room to real life. Furthermore, our exercise prescription is designed specifically to meet the needs of the people we see, by taking a step beyond isolated movements and replicating real life tasks in the gym (or home gym) setting. We look at the injury not on its own, but how it functions as a part of an entire system – that’s what “physiology” means after all! By having this perspective, it teaches clients exactly what their body is capable of in their day to day, so that they learn what they should or should not be doing outside of the exercise sessions. 


So are Exercise Physiologists in Combat with Physiotherapists? 

Definitely not! We see our service as being complementary to physio, helping to ease the transition back to everyday life for those individuals who have found themselves in the ‘chronic condition’ category. 

Physios – what do you think?


Author: Yolanda van Vugt

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