What Is an Exercise Physiologist (With Skills)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Updated 28 November 2022 | Published 12 June 2021

Updated 28 November 2022

Published 12 June 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Physiologists help people live healthy lives. The aim of exercise physiology is to prevent or manage injury or disease and help restore physical function, health and wellbeing. Learning about the various aspects of an exercise physiologist role can help guide you towards the best career choices. In this article, we discuss what an exercise physiologist is, what they do and what skills and qualifications they need.

What is an exercise physiologist?

An exercise physiologist is a medical professional who's undergone extensive education to understand the human body's response to exercise. They help people improve their health through a range of clinical exercise interventions. Typically, their patients are those at risk of developing a chronic illness or injury and those with existing health issues. This can include managing the symptoms of patients diagnosed with conditions, such as:

  • Cardiovascular disease

  • Metabolic disease

  • Obesity

  • Respiratory disease

  • Neurological disease

  • Arthritis

  • Osteoporosis

  • Other chronic musculoskeletal issues

  • Mental health conditions

  • Cancer

Often, the role of an exercise physiologist is also to work closely with athletes. They help them recover from injuries and ensure they can perform at their best.

Related: 28 Popular Sport Science Career Pathways (With Salaries)

Where do exercise physiologists work?

The nature of an exercise physiologist's job allows them to work across a broad range of health settings. The setting for exercise physiologists can depend on the age or type of patients they care for. Work settings can include medical centres, hospitals, workplaces, aged care facilities, gyms and sports teams.

What does an exercise physiologist do?

A role of an exercise physiologist is varied. It provides the chance to offer a range of services to patients to improve their health. This career covers areas such as:

  • Behavioural coaching

  • Health education

  • Illness or injury management

  • Illness of injury rehabilitation

An exercise physiologist's work with patients begins with an assessment. This helps them identify their patients' physical capabilities, needs and goals. The next step is to design and prescribe a long-term plan that promotes better health and physical function. This plan allows their patients to take an active role in achieving their goals.

The common duties of an exercise physiologist include, but aren't limited to:

  • Extensive physical assessments

  • Medical history analysis

  • Assessing the exercise risk of patients

  • Determining best treatment pathways

  • Performing fitness and stress testing and analysing results

  • Measuring key health indicators (blood pressure, Vo2 max, heart rate)

  • Prescribing suitable (clinic, workplace, home or gym) exercise plans

  • Delivering suitable (clinic, workplace, home or gym) exercise plans

  • Educating and providing advice on lifestyle modification for health improvement

  • Coordinating with health care teams

  • Workplace assessments

Exercise physiologists do not provide invasive services, diagnosis or prescribe medications.

What is the difference between a physical therapist and an exercise physiologist?

Physical therapists and exercise physiologists are both university qualified allied health professionals. However, what their jobs entail is different. They both use equipment and exercises to treat their patients. Physical therapists can also provide hands-on treatment. Their focus is on increasing mobility, through joint manipulation, remedial massage and dry-needling. Exercise physiologists offer hands-off treatment in the form of tailored exercise programs. Their focus is on rehabilitating or managing chronic illness or injury.

An exercise physiologist can work in a broad range of health settings. Physical therapists usually work from private treatment rooms though sometimes travel to clients.

What skills and attributes do you need to be an exercise physiologist?

Employers generally look for compassionate exercise physiologists who have the following hard and soft skills:

Active listening skills

Listening is more than hearing. It's a process that involves making a conscious decision to both hear and understand the speaker. Exercise physiologists need active listening skills to allow them to understand their patients. It also helps encourage their patients to communicate easily and openly. An active listener conveys their interest to the speaker. They do this through verbal and nonverbal actions such as nodding, eye contact or saying "yes" or "OK." Active listening is a skill that you can learn and improve with practise.

Communication skills

Exercise physiologists work with patients and usually other medical practitioners. So, they can use excellent communication skills to promote understanding. Communication skills involve giving and receiving information. There are different communication skills, such as written and verbal communication skills. In this professional medical role, both are essential.

For an objective opinion on your communication skills, you can ask a friend for their honest feedback. Understanding your existing communication habits can help you identify what to improve. Many online and offline classes can help you enhance your communication skills.

Social perception skills

Social perception is essential when working with people. There are many underlying messages that people may communicate to those around them in other ways, like nonverbal communication. Exercise physiologists can understand their patients' feelings. This involves identifying body language indicators and assessing motivations behind specific actions. To develop your social perceptiveness, you can focus on improving your listening skills and learning about body language.

Interpersonal skills

Interpersonal skills are traits you rely on when you interact and communicate with others. To communicate with and guide their patients, exercise physiologists can use excellent interpersonal skills. These skills assist them with building rapport and trusting relationships with their patients. There are many classes and videos that can guide you in developing your interpersonal skills.

Technical skills

Technical skills, or hard skills, are the working knowledge of tools, processes or concepts you need to do a job well. Due to the various types of software and equipment exercise physiologists work with, they're technically proficient. Try to locate someone who works in exercise physiology who can educate you on the technical skills you can develop to succeed in the role.

Attention to detail

Attention to detail is the ability to produce work that is of high quality and free of discrepancies. Working as an allied health professional requires attention to detail. Many health issues and conditions are hard to detect during their beginning stages. An exercise physiologist can use attention to detail skills to provide the proper diagnoses for their patients.

A role in this field also often means working with a high volume of patients. Being able to record and stay up-to-date with the specifics of every patient is important. Limiting distractions and playing detail-orientated games can help you improve your attention to detail.

Instructional skills

Instructional skills are broad and include both techniques and actions. Instructional skills involve techniques like questioning, discussing, explaining and demonstrating. They also include actions like planning, organising and managing. Exercise physiologists can use instructional skills to coach patients as they perform exercises. Developing your proficiency in your communication and interpersonal skills, as well as your knowledge of a subject, can help improve your instructional skills.

Customer service skills

Customer service is both a type of job and a set of skills. As a job, customer service professionals need to address customer needs and ensure a good experience. As a skill set, customer service entails several qualities. These can include active listening, empathy, problem-solving and communication. Many professions need customer service skills, including exercise physiology.

Practising your customer service skills is the best way to develop them. It's essential to avoid taking any negative criticism personally. All customer feedback is important, even if it isn't positive. This feedback can give you a foundation on which to improve your skills.

Motivational skills

Motivational skills refer to the actions that elicit desired outcomes, responses or behaviours. Exercise physiologists often work alone, so they can be proficient at working independently. They can also motivate their patients to help them reach their goals. To improve your motivational skills, you can make a point of active listening and also praising people, not just for achievements but also for effort.

Becoming an exercise physiologist

Exercise physiologists help people become healthier and fitter, improving their quality of life. Being an exercise physiologist can be a very rewarding career path. The average salary for an exercise physiologist is $74,950 per year.

This career is suitable for those with a general interest in health, fitness and wellbeing, who are naturally empathetic. It requires undertaking at least four years of university study (level 7 or above in the area of clinical exercise physiology). Upon completion of tertiary qualification, there is an extensive accreditation process. This process includes practical experience in a range of environments and health settings. Additionally, there are annual professional development requirements for exercise physiologists to maintain their accreditation.

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