What is an exercise physiologist?

What is an Exercise Physiologist (EP) you may ask?

We are the one of the newest members of the allied health sector and therefore, not as widely known as Physiotherapists or Podiatrists. The study of Exercise Physiology is the use of exercise and lifestyle therapies for the prevention and management of chronic disease, injury and disability. This covers a huge variety of illnesses including: cardiorespiratory, mental/psychological, hormonal, musculoskeletal, cancer and neurological. Quite often, particularly in older clientele, you will need to address two or three illnesses from each category, called comorbidities.

Regularly, I get asked how we differ from Personal Trainers or Physiotherapists. In the case of PTs, they are only allowed to treat ‘healthy populations’, or those at low risk. There are certainly crossovers with both PTs and physiotherapy. Providing a program to a low risk client can be done by both EPs and PTs, and qualified Pilates instructors can be found in both the exercise physiology and physiotherapy sectors.

Cardiorespiratory rehabilitation until recently was performed primarily by Physiotherapists, but is now leaning towards EPs due to the chronic illness specialisation. My limitations are outlined by the diagnosis of illness, disease or injury. I often have my suspicions about undiagnosed conditions, but only facts can be passed on to the client’s general practitioner or specialist for further analysis.

My career was never in plain sight until my third year of University. Originally, I was undertaking a double degree of Education and Human Movement Science, with eyes of becoming a Health and Physical Education Teacher. Like a great number students straight out of high school, I had NO clue what I wanted or who I wanted to be. And that still is the case to a lesser degree! I have always enjoyed the outdoors and keeping active, whether it was cricket, rugby league, fishing, or athletics, there was always something going on as a teenager. With that background, I thought Human Movement Science was a decent choice of degree, even when I dropped out of Education studies.

It wasn’t until my placement with a wonderful lady by the name of Narelle Humphries at the Rockhampton Base Hospital that I had a clearer picture of my career. By pure good fortune, a friend one year ahead of me recommended that I should try to do my placement hours there, and I have never looked back. There, I was introduced to cardiac rehabilitation and the role that exercise plays in returning someone to normal life after cardiac arrest, bypass surgery or cardiac stents. After completing my degree in Townsville, I moved to Toowoomba where I work as a contracted EP, working primarily with Returned Servicemen and Women.

As mentioned before, a lot of the older clients, or in my case, veterans will be referred with comorbidities, be that physical or mental. This makes my job challenging as prescribing exercise for one ailment, may be completely incorrect for another issue they present with. After initial consultation, a care plan will be devised to cater for all injury/illness/disease, in order of biggest priority to least. This is always in relation to the largest impact on their wellbeing. It is incredibly rare to have two similar care plans of two different high risk individuals. As an example, Client A and Client B have just both just had Cardiac Bypass Surgery. After clearance from the cardiologist, exercise intervention is started at low to moderate intensity to gradually build up their cardiovascular strength without putting excess strain on their tender bodies. It would be easy to stick them both on exercise bikes, treadmills, x-trainers, etc., but Client B may present with severe arthritis in his lower back, making the bike or various other exercises particularly painful.

There is never a one-size-fits-all program as the gyms and exercise equipment companies like to advertise. The fact is that whether you are high or low risk, your individual needs and wants could be completely different to the next person’s. The same individual care plans/programs are needed for ‘healthy people’, as they needed for the elderly or frail. Illness and injury aside, people have likes and dislikes when it comes to exercise. Many people do not enjoy gyms at all. Some people prefer team sports. Others would much prefer to lift weights all day than go anywhere near cardio machines.

If you are starting a new exercise regime, whether it be home, at the gym or in another form, make sure you are addressing all of your concerns before you begin, and then try to match that with something you find enjoyable. Next week, I will talk about the countless methods to get into your new routine, and the choices available for your individual programs.