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What is exercise physiology? Clearing up the confusion about this multifaceted career

Jess Scherman By  Jess Scherman  |  @jescherman  | 

Exercise-Physiology

Most of us have heard of physical therapists, athletic trainers, nutritionists and coaches — and we have a pretty solid grasp on what they do in their day-to-day work. But, for many people, exercise physiology is a different animal. You may have heard of exercise physiology but few truly understand even the basics about this multifaceted healthcare career.   

Put simply, exercise physiologists help people become their best physical selves. The profession can be as varied as helping athletes reach peak fitness; guiding people in their journeys to lose weight; or rehabilitating patients suffering from chronic illness.    

But there's so much more than that. To help shed some light on this complex field of study, we compiled a broad overview of this rewarding career — complete with some basic definitions and distinctions between some of the confusing and similar sounding fields.  

Kinesiology, sports medicine, exercise science or exercise physiology? The true definitions

Many use the terms exercise physiology, exercise science, sports medicine and even kinesiology interchangeably, but professionals in these fields know there are some very distinct differences between them. Before focusing on the basics of exercise physiology, it's important to address these often misconstrued fields.

What is kinesiology?

Kinesiology, literally defined, is the study of human movement. More broadly defined, kinesiology focuses on the biological, developmental, social and behavioral bases of physical activity, recreation, sport and human performance. People with degrees in kinesiology typically specialize in one of several fields, including exercise physiology; sport and exercise psychology; motor behavior and control; history and philosophy of sport and exercise; biomechanics; sports and exercise sociology; physical education; recreation and leisure studies; and ergonomics.

What is sports medicine?

Sports medicine deals directly with injuries sustained in sports, exercise and physical activity, including their prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Historically, this field was dominated by physicians, but today sports medicine includes professionals from many different fields who have shared interest in preventing and treating physical activity-related injuries. This includes physicians, athletic trainers, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, physical therapists and biomechanists.

What is exercise physiology?

Exercise physiology is a specialization within the field of kinesiology. These medical professionals study the body's responses to physical activity as well as how the body adapts to physical activity over time. Exercise physiologists are responsible for conditioning clients to higher levels of physical fitness and improved health, while staying tuned into safety issues that can be associated with single session exercise.

How is exercise physiology different from exercise science?

Both exercise science and exercise physiology are terms that describe a field of study devoted to understanding the acute and chronic responses to exercise, physical activity and sport. Though not an absolute rule, academic programs in exercise physiology typically have more uniform and standardized physiology-based curricula. In contrast, exercise science programs can have curricula that vary widely from one program to the next and range from focuses on physical education to health and human performance to kinesiology and exercise physiology.  

What else should I know about exercise physiology?

The number of work environments an exercise physiologist can work in is as long and distinguished as the list of clients they serve. The bottom line: Job opportunities for professionals in this field are robust!  

But the wide net of exercise physiology is best understood by breaking down your options into two primary categories: clinical and non-clinical. Exercise physiologists who work in a clinical setting provide supervised exercise programs for patients suffering from heart and lung disease, as well as other chronic medical concerns. Programs for cancer patients and the clinically obese have also grown in recent years.    

Exercise physiologists who work in non-clinical settings work with healthy to moderately healthy adults who are looking to lose weight or improve their overall physical fitness. This can include working in public fitness facilities and community organizations such as the YMCA, as well as working as strength and conditioning specialists with professional or intercollegiate athletic programs. Conditioning programs for teen athletes have also seen substantial growth within private fitness facilities.  

No matter if exercise physiologists are working in a clinical or non-clinical environment, there is a number of skills and areas of expertise required to be successful in the field. It begins with science-related prerequisites, such as biology, anatomy and chemistry, but that's not all.

These positions require a healthy amount of interpersonal skills including active listening and critical thinking due to the high level of patient interaction in their day-to-day duties. These skills help exercise physiologists assess client health and implement the most effective regimen for their personal betterment and goals.  

Is exercise physiology the right career path for you?

Exercise physiologists play a crucial role in the health and wellness of individuals of all ages and physical capacities. To that end, exercise physiology programs across the country require rigorous academic preparation. The program at The College of St. Scholastica (CSS) is built upon a foundation of ethical principles and professionalism.  

If you're looking for a way to use your knowledge, skills and interests to improve the physical lives of others with a fulfilling career, check out CSS' exercise physiology program page to learn more about degree outcomes, state-of-the-art labs and personalized student exercise programs.      

Jess Scherman


Jess is a higher education content creator who writes on behalf of The College of St. Scholastica. She researches and writes content to help current and prospective students on their path to educational success. As a published poet with a passion for the transformative nature of higher education, she loves discovering new ways to use her writing as a tool to help others.

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