Exercise Physiology Explained

Exercise Physiology Explained

Exercise physiology boasts a long history, marked by the publication of its first dedicated textbook in 1888 (1). However, it’s in the last 40 years that the field has really grown.Notably, research outputs have surged, professional bodies have solidified their presence, and exercise physiologists are increasingly valued in the realms of health and rehabilitation (2,3). 


Despite these advancements, there’s still work to be done in elevating the visibility and understanding of Exercise Physiologists (EPs). This rings particularly true for our team that spans both Australia and New Zealand, with the latter experiencing a notable lag in recognition. In our commitment to fostering awareness, our first article of 2024 is dedicated to shedding light on the dynamic world of Exercise Physiology.


What is Exercise Physiology? 


Exercise Physiology is the scientific study of human performance and function under stress. It explores the relationships between physical activity and the structure and function of the human body. It encompasses sport-specific exercise physiology, focused on optimising athletic performance, and clinical exercise physiology, which involves using physical activity for therapy and prevention of chronic disease.


When we break it down, it can be helpful to consider the definition of “physiology” itself, which according to the national library of medicine, is:

“The biological science concerned with the life-supporting properties, functions, and processes of living organisms or their parts”. 


Add exercise to the picture and basically, exercise physiology is concerned with: 

1. The overall functioning of the human body and its systems

2. How exercise (or ‘load’) affects this functioning 


What do Exercise Physiologists do?  


Given their expertise in how the human body responds to physical activity, or “load, Exercise Physiologists are integral to the promotion of health and well-being. Their primary focus is collaborating with individuals to develop and implement personalised interventions, tailoring programs to address the unique needs and conditions of each individual.


A significant aspect of an exercise physiologist’s work involves managing chronic diseases. Their strength lies in their comprehensive understanding of the physiological implications of health conditions and the responses induced by activity. They possess in-depth knowledge of how exercise influences various physiological systems, including the cardiovascular, respiratory, musculoskeletal, metabolic, and nervous systems. Beyond isolated considerations, exercise physiologists examine the interplay of these systems, taking a holistic approach to individual health. In cases where these systems are compromised, exercise physiologists design interventions that enhance overall fitness and target specific physiological adaptations to alleviate the impact of chronic diseases.


Moreover (whilst Specialised Health’s EPs are experts in the occupational rehabilitation field) many exercise physiologists work with athletes, applying their expertise in sport exercise physiology. By analysing the body’s response to exercise, exercise physiologists help athletes optimise their training routines to reach peak performance and reduce the risk of injury or other unfavourable effects. 


To put it in one sentence; our Exercise Physiologists use their knowledge of the human body to look at how someone is functioning as a whole, the limitations and barriers that they possess and how we can use exercise alongside supplementary interventions to improve their function and quality of life.


What does it take to become an Exercise Physiologist? 


What does it entail to pursue a career as an Exercise Physiologist? In the broader context of health professions, exercise physiology is a relatively recent addition, gradually gaining prominence, particularly in countries like New Zealand. 


Contrary to what some people perceive, becoming an Exercise Physiologist requires a rigorous educational background. In Australia, accredited EPs have completed a minimum four years of study. From there, accreditation as an Exercise Physiologist necessitates affiliation with a governing body, ensuring that professionals meet stringent standards (5). 


Wrapping Up


Exercise Physiology has seen remarkable growth in the past four decades. While we’ve made strides, there’s still work to do, especially in places like New Zealand where awareness is key.


Exercise Physiologists, like us, are passionate about health and function, focusing on personalised interventions and understanding the intricate link between physical activity and the human body. Looking ahead to 2024, we’re genuinely excited to dive into more meaningful work because, as they say, actions speak louder than words.


  1. ACSM and Exercise Physiology: Past, Present, and Future. (1998). Professionalization of Exercise Physiology Online, 1(1). https://www.asep.org/asep/asep/jan11.htm#:~:text=The%20study%20of%20exercise%20physiology,)%20(8%2C9).
  1. Kent, J. A., & Hayes, K. L. (n.d.). Exercise Physiology From 1980 to 2020: Application of the Natural Sciences. Kinesiology Review, 10(3), 238–247. https://doi.org/10.1123/kr.2021-0024
  2. ESSA 30 years | Story #30. (n.d.). https://www.essa.org.au/Public/Public/30_Years/ESSA_30_Years_Story_30.aspx#:~:text=The%20Australian%20Association%20of%20Exercise,out%20from%20Sports%20Medicine%20Australia.
  3. National Library of Medicine (US). (2018, November 9). Physiology. Collection Development Guidelines of the National Library of Medicine – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK518698/
  4. 5. Exercise Physiology – Allied Health Professions Australia. (2020, August 14). Allied Health Professions Australia. https://ahpa.com.au/allied-health-professions/exercise-physiology/#:~:text=How%20are%20exercise%20physiologists%20qualified,under%20a%20code%20of%20ethics.

Author: Tessa Nielsen 
Clinical Exercise Physiologist and
Content Creator at Specialised Health

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