Exercise Physiologist: Career Overview

Exercise physiologist intern monitoring cardiac rehab patient during graded stress test.

An Exercise Physiologist (EP) analyzes the effects of exercise on the human body. Much of what we know about physiological responses to various types of physical activity, exercise intensities and geographical climates comes from their research. They study a wide range of applied physiology topics, such as muscle composition, cardiorespiratory capacities and how energy is used and produced during exercise.

Aside from being able to work directly with both clinical and athletic populations, they may also work for a large vitamin and nutritional supplement company helping in the research and development of new products. For example, they may help define and test physiological performance parameters in response to new macro- and micro-nutrient formulations designed for optimal recovery from high-intensity training.




EPs may also work as teachers or professors teaching fundamental and applied knowledge of the exercise sciences.

A.V. Hill: A True Exercise Physiology Pioneer

Without question, Archibald Vivian (A.V.) Hill is one of the foremost pioneers in the field of Exercise Physiology. The British physiologist applied his strong background in mathematics to the areas of muscle mechanics and energy metabolism in determining the relationship between the force and velocity of muscle and quantifying the amount of heat produced in muscle during contraction.

Earning him the highly-coveted Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1922, Hill’s crowning scientific achievement was discovery of the aerobic and anaerobic pathways of energy metabolism; an honor shared with fellow scientist Otto Meyerhof – a German biochemist who made key discoveries in the metabolism of glycogen and lactic acid in muscle.

Requirements for Becoming an Exercise Physiologist

Simply put, there are no nationally standardized academic, certification or licensure requirements to practice as an exercise physiologist as the profession is currently unregulated. Among the primary reasons behind why EP isn’t recognized in this manner has to do with its relatively new emergence as an “official” profession in health care. However, this is not to say that industry standards haven’t been established in an attempt to help define requirements needed for practice.

Education

A bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science, Kinesiology or another closely related area is pretty much considered the entry-level requirement to be an EP. That being said, more and more healthcare facilities are requiring their EPs to hold a master’s degree. Colleges and universities typically offer one or a combination of the following 4 study tracks to their Exercise Science/Exercise Physiology students: clinical (applied), clinical (research), human performance and pre-health professional.

Certification

The major organizations and associations that stand for, encourage and provide credentials specifically for the practice of exercise physiology are the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Most employers – especially, in the clinical setting – require at least one certification. You may not necessarily be required to hold an ACSM or ASEP credential – some employers accept other organizations, such as National Academy of Sports Medicine or Cooper Institute. Always make sure of the certification requirements for each potential job position. Recently, some employers have been recommending or even requiring applicants to hold a certification in health coaching.


EPC | American Society of Exercise Physiologists

ASEP offers the Board Certified Exercise Physiologist (EPC) credential and specifically dedicated to furthering the legitimacy and growth of the EP profession. The EPC exam consists of 200 questions in the multiple-choice format with a 4-hour time limit. You must hold an undergraduate or graduate degree in Exercise Science or Exercise Physiology to be eligible to site for the exam as well having current ASEP membership status. The association’s membership fee ranges from $50 to $150 depending on the type you choose. Along with this cost, there is an EPC exam application fee of $300 and you’ll also be required to pay $125 for ‘Certified Professional Member’ membership once you’ve passed the test. After this, it costs only $50 every 5 years to maintain your ASEP board certification.

EP, CEP and RCEP | American College of Sports Medicine

As the leading educational, research and credentialing organization in the areas of exercise science and sports medicine, ACSM also works toward improving credibility and opportunities for EPs in the healthcare and fitness workplaces. They offer three levels of certification for EPs: ACSM Exercise Physiologist (EP-C), ACSM Clinical Exercise Physiologist (CEP) and Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP). To take the CEP exam you’re required to have a bachelor’s in Exercise Science (or closely related major) and clinical experience. The difference between the EP-C and CEP is that becoming an EP-C doesn’t require clinical experience. What makes the RCEP different is that you’ll need a master’s degree and additional clinical experience to sit for the exam. All cost between $279 – $349 to take depending on ACSM membership status. Also, for the EP-C, CEP and RCEP, ASCM requires completion of 60 continuing education credits and a $45 certification renewal fee every 3 years.

CPT, CES, PES and more | National Academy of Sports Medicine

Although the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) doesn’t offer a specific exercise physiologist certification, the organization does provide related credentials, including their core NASM personal trainer certification and several specialty certifications such as Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES), Behavior Change Specialist (BLS), Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) and a few that focus on special populations. NASM is actually the only certifying organization that offers free online courses for their certifications, where you can learn more about the topics and detailed material each certification covers.

Job Requirements of the Exercise Physiologist

Work Settings

Due to their extensive knowledge of applied human physiology, there are a variety of work settings and employment opportunities for exercise physiologists. Here are a few major examples:

Cardiac Rehabilitation

Hospitals and outpatient clinical facilities primarily utilize exercise physiologists for cardiac rehabilitation. In this setting, patients with heart disease or recovering from cardiac events undergo functional capacity testing and exercise-prescription based workout sessions supervised by a cardiologist with assistance from an exercise physiologist. For example, EPs monitor heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation of patients recovering from cardiac surgery while guiding them through programmed exercise routines. The patient’s activity level is regulated and gradually adjusted according to data collected by the EP.

Corporate Wellness

With the growing encouragement by companies to ensure employee health (in effort to lower health insurance claims and improve work productivity) corporate wellness programs offer an increasing number of employment opportunities for exercise physiologists. Businesses realize that having healthy employees often results in less lost work time due of injury or illness. Higher productivity and decreased insurance costs improves a company’s bottom-line. A company may contract with an exercise physiologist from an outside agency or hire one directly to develop and lead employee exercise programs.

Academia and Government

At the colleges and universities, EPs can take on administrative and teaching roles in Exercise Science, Kinesiology or related human performance departments. Many public and private academic institutions have these departments. Major universities often have exercise physiologists carrying out clinical or performance research as well as professorial duties.

The government also hires physiologists to test human responses to extreme environments. For example, the military may need to know how a pilot will react to a sudden change in atmospheric pressure if something happens to his or her aircraft or how an astronaut’s bone density changes during extended periods of time in microgravity.

Example of Cardiac Rehabilitation Job Duty

As mentioned above, cardiac rehabilitation is a strong employment area for exercise physiologists. With a large segment of the population reaching older age, the incidence of cardiac-related problems is also likely to increase. Stress tests and exercise electrocardiography are used to determine if a person has early indications of cardiac disease.

An exercise physiologist commonly assists with exercise stress testing by perform the following tasks:

  • Explaining the procedure and progression of the test
  • Attaching the electrodes to patients in precise locations
  • Recording and observing the physiological reactions to the test, including heart rate, blood pressure and rating of perceived exertion
  • Stopping the test safely if the patient experiences an adverse reaction

Example of Human Performance Job Duty

A maximum aerobic capacity (VO2 max) test is similar to a stress test and is often performed on athletes. The analysis can be used to gauge cardiovascular fitness by assessing the athlete’s efficiency of oxygen consumption and cardiac output. In addition to the electrocardiograph, the athlete is connected to a metabolic cart that measures the difference between a known amount of inhaled oxygen and the carbon dioxide exhaled. The computed difference shows how effectively the athlete’s body utilizes the available oxygen in the bloodstream.

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