Exercise Physiologist Job Description
Exercise physiologists are healthcare professionals dedicated to improving patient health through customized fitness programs. Exercise physiologists are uniquely positioned to work in medical, academic, fitness-based, or corporate settings. The specifics of an exercise physiologist’s job will depend on whether they work in a clinical or nonclinical setting, but will generally involve daily patient interaction and extensive experience with fitness programs and cardiac diagnostics.
Exercise Physiologist Duties and Responsibilities
Most exercise physiologists practice in a clinical setting focused on rehabilitation or in a nonclinical setting focused on improving health and wellness; their day-to-day duties will vary accordingly. Some typical duties and responsibilities include the following:
Develop Exercise Programs
Regardless of setting, exercise physiologists work with their patients or clients to develop customized fitness and exercise programs. In the rehabilitation setting, the goal may be to address chronic medical conditions through supervised and guided exercise prescriptions. When working with a healthier population, exercise physiologists may develop a fitness program that can be sustained over time for a client’s overall improved health.
Evaluate Cardiovascular Function
Exercise physiologists regularly evaluate a patient or client’s cardiac fitness. These evaluations may take place while developing an exercise program, during targeted rehab work on a patient suffering from heart disease, or in an academic or research setting.
Improve Overall Patient Health
Exercise physiologists are often tasked with improving a patient’s overall health. This can happen across numerous settings and industries, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, and corporate programs.
Administer Cardiac Stress Tests
Stress tests are a routine part of an exercise physiologist’s cardiac fitness evaluation. They administer the entire test (from attaching leads to assisting during an adverse event), record and analyze the data generated, and explain the test procedure and details to the patient.
Exercise physiologists often educate patients and peers on fitness and cardiac rehabilitation. Exercise physiologists are therefore expected to stay current on trends and developments in their field.
Exercise Physiologist Skills and Qualifications
Exercise physiologists work directly with patients and clients on a daily basis, so they’re personable, responsive, relatable, and socially alert. Armed with at least a bachelor’s degree plus relevant certifications, exercise physiologists also need the following skill set to be successful, regardless of the industry or employer:
- Knowledgeable in fitness medicine – exercise physiologists, in their varying roles, should be knowledgeable in medical terminology, cardiac fitness, diagnostic testing, and relevant physiology and anatomy
- Medical response – during any patient or client interaction, exercise physiologists must be attuned to their subject’s response to the program or test being administered. If a patient or client experiences an adverse event, the exercise physiologist needs to properly respond and, if necessary, provide or secure appropriate medical care
- Technically agile – given the number of tests and medical machines routinely involved with an exercise physiologist’s work, they need to be comfortable handling and troubleshooting complicated diagnostic equipment
- Critical thinking – exercise physiologists often need to interpret data in real time to develop solutions to a patient’s health problem or achieve a client’s wellness goal. Because each patient is unique and presents different challenges, exercise physiologists need to process quickly and think critically and creatively to design the best program for each patient
- Interpersonal skills – exercise physiologists develop relationships with their subjects, sometimes lasting weeks or months. It is therefore critical that exercise physiologists develop a rapport with their patients, making each one feel comfortable, safe, and secure during testing or treatment
Exercise Physiologist Tools of the Trade
Most exercise physiologists regularly use the following diagnostic and fitness tools in their everyday practice, regardless of the clinical or nonclinical domain:
- Diagnostic equipment (12-lead ECG, metabolic analyzers, and blood pressure monitors)
- Fitness equipment (treadmills and rowing machines)
- Computer programs (Word, Excel, and PowerPoint)
Exercise Physiologist Education and Training
At minimum, exercise physiologists have a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or a related discipline, though a master’s degree is preferred. Academic curricula will include courses in biomechanics, cardiac rehabilitation, kinesiology, and sports nutrition, among other subjects. Years of experience will vary, but most employers require at least three to six months of work or internship experience, with many requiring two or more years.
Although the field of exercise physiology is currently unregulated, most employers require some or all of the following certifications: American Society of Exercise Physiologists certification; American College of Sports Medicine certification; basic life support or advanced cardiovascular life support certification.
Exercise Physiologist Salary and Outlook
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists the 2016 median annual salary for exercise physiologists at $47,340. Exercise physiologists in the lowest 10 percent earned less than $32,290 a year, while the highest 10 percent made over $74,000 a year. Government was the top-paying industry, and exercise physiologists working as health diagnosing and treating practitioners had a median annual salary of almost $78,000.
Exercise physiologist employment is projected to grow 13 percent by 2026, a rate the BLS describes as faster than average for all occupations. As preventative health continues to grow, so should the demand for exercise physiologists.
Exercise Physiologist Helpful Resources
The following resources may be helpful to anyone exploring the field of exercise physiology:
American Society of Exercise Physiologists – the ASEP is a nonprofit professional association focused on advancing the field of exercise physiology
Journal of Exercise Physiology – this open access, internet-based journal is published by ASEP
The Business of Exercise Physiology – Dr. Thomas Boone, the first president of ASEP, wrote this guide to starting your own business as an exercise physiologist
Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance – the 10th edition of Scott K. Powers and Edward T. Howley’s book gives exercise physiology students “an up-to-date understanding of the physiology of exercise” and includes clinical examples
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