The second most common question that I get asked, after ‘what is an Exercise Physiologist’, is ‘so what does an Exercise Physiologist do’? These questions might sound the same but there is a subtle difference. It’s actually a very difficult question to answer simply because we can do so much. The variety in our work is one of the major reasons that I decided to become an Exercise Physiologist, so when someone asks me what it is that Exercise Physiologists do I usually tell them to have a seat because there is no way that I can explain it all in a few sentences. From the elderly, the young, disabled, fit, unfit, overweight, skinny, ill, healthy and anything else in between, the scope of people that we can interact with has almost no limits.
I tend to start with the most obvious answer, which is that we help people to improve their health and fitness. This is a very generic answer that can be defined further, however. Using a Personal Trainer as an example, and most people seem to know what a Personal Trainer does, we work with people to improve their physical fitness and capacity. This can involve any apparently healthy person – a person that does not appear to have or know about any illnesses or health issues – who wants to get stronger, faster, aerobically fitter, more agile, more mobile or more stable. Whilst a good portion of our training at university does focus on people with an acknowledged health condition, we do an equal amount of study and education in Exercise Science and, at some universities, Sports Science. So, getting back to the original point, we do everything that a Personal Trainer can do and have a fair bit of extra education and training on top of the typical education and training provided to a Personal Trainer.
One of the absolutely wonderful additions to the health care system has been the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). It aims to provide support to the roughly 500,000 Australians under the age of 65 that live with a permanent disability. The NDIS will provide this support as a means to ensure that those with a disability can live an ordinary life. And, excitingly, Exercise Physiologists have a role to play in this. So, the next answer to the question of what it is that Exercise Physiologists do is to state that we can help those with a permanent disability to live a long and ordinary life. We do this by providing structured, specific and progressive exercise programs to people with conditions ranging from Spina Bifida to Multiple Sclerosis to Down Syndrome to Paraplegia and anything else in between. We are the only exercise professionals that are able to provide this level or support and we consider it a privilege.
Another group of clients that can get access to our services whilst utilising health system rebates are those that are suffering from a long term chronic condition. These conditions are wide and varied but can include illnesses and diseases such as Diabetes, Hypertension (high blood pressure), Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), Arthritis, Osteoporosis, Cancer and Depression to name just a few. During our time at university and in practical placement we will learn the physiology of all of these conditions and how to apply exercise as a means to improve the symptoms and underlying cause. We work with a team of Allied Health Professionals to do this in the best way that we can, most notably the client’s General Practitioner (GP). Some Exercise Physiologists will charge a gap payment for this service.
Some of the most challenging and rewarding work that we can do is in the Work Cover space, and this is where the next part of my answer takes us. When a worker is injured they will enter the Workers Compensation scheme with a view gaining access to rehabilitation services that will provide them with the means to return to meaningful work, if not the same duties as previously. Exercise Physiologists step in at this point to help to ensure that we can provide the client with the exercise and functional training necessary to have them return to their pre-injury level of capacity. It can be complicated work, with multiple stakeholders involved, but extremely rewarding in the sense that we are working to help someone to gain their livelihood back. Stepping in at the sub-acute stage (usually a matter of weeks after the injury first occurs), we will take the client through a program that can range in time from 6-12 weeks that ensure they are ready to return to work at the time of discharge.
There are other sectors that Exercise Physiologists will work in, including the Department of Veterans Affairs where we are able to provide Veterans with a Gold Card to a clinically justifiable volume of exercise sessions. We are also involved in the Life Insurance space, where we are the go to Allied Health Professionals for insurance companies. This is because, believe it or not, a structured exercise program accompanying an overall lifestyle management system can actually improve health and offset the chance of morbidity and sickness. Who would have thought it? You’ll also see Exercise Physiologists working with sporting teams and alongside other performance specialists to ensure that athletes are ready to perform at their best.
So, to answer the question of what does an Exercise Physiologist do, basically, wherever movement is required and exercise is needed you will find us! And we have the best job in the world. Find an Exercise Physiologist and ask them – they’ll give you the same answer.