What is Clinical Exercise Physiology?

Allison Boelcke

Exercise physiology is the scientific study of how physical activity affects the body. There are two types of exercise physiology: sport and clinical. Sport exercise physiology applies exercise knowledge to develop fitness conditioning routines for athletes, while clinical exercise physiology uses exercise as a form of treatment and prevention of chronic disease, as well as for therapeutic purposes.

Clinical exercise physiology can be applied as a form of therapy, as exercise can increase levels of serotonin in the body.
Clinical exercise physiology can be applied as a form of therapy, as exercise can increase levels of serotonin in the body.

Professional clinical exercise physiologists generally work in hospitals, sports medicine clinics, and physical therapy centers. They meet with patients and customize exercise regimes that will be the most beneficial to their health issues. For instance, someone with heart disease may be prescribed a cardiovascular routine, such as jogging or walking, to increase heart strength.

Exercise therapy can be used to help diabetics maintain low blood glucose levels.
Exercise therapy can be used to help diabetics maintain low blood glucose levels.

Diabetes centers may use clinical exercise physiology to help patients in managing the disease. Diabetics can suffer from low insulin, hormones that convert sugar from food into energy, which can result in high levels of glucose in the blood. Exercise therapy can be used to keep blood glucose levels down naturally because exercise burns glucose. Physical activity is also prescribed to diabetics under physiologist supervision to prevent diabetes from worsening in overweight individuals.

Cardiovascular routines are helpful in preventing heart diseases.
Cardiovascular routines are helpful in preventing heart diseases.

Exercise is also used in healthcare facilities to treat orthopedic diseases, such as arthritis or osteoporosis, that inhibit movement in elderly individuals. Since exercise can be difficult for those with joint pain, exercise physiologists educate patients on how to safely work out to gain health benefits without injuring themselves. Exercise physiologists will often recommend swimming to minimize impact on joints while still providing the benefits of physical activity.

Exercise may be used in healthcare facilities to treat osteoporosis.
Exercise may be used in healthcare facilities to treat osteoporosis.

Clinical exercise physiology can also be applied as a form of therapy for the psychological aspects, such as anxiety or depression, that may come with a disease. Exercise can increase levels of serotonin in the body, which can help relieve stress of those suffering from chronic diseases. Decreased stress levels may make patients mentally feel better, and in turn, can improve their health.

The ability to motivate patients is an important aspect of clinical exercise physiology. Physiologists work with people who are ill and possibly in pain. Exercise therapy requires a careful balance of the scientific knowledge of how to best improve the conditions of patients, along with the motivational skills needed to encourage them to continue when therapy becomes difficult. For example, a clinical exercise physiologist may meet with a group of hospital patients with various diseases and prescribe exercise routines specific to the conditions. He or she then supervises the routines to make sure no one overexerts themselves and makes their conditions worse, as well as keeping them motivated to overcome their ailments.

Clinical exercise physiologists often work at outpatient physical therapy clinics.
Clinical exercise physiologists often work at outpatient physical therapy clinics.

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Discussion Comments


My son works as a clinical exercise physiologist at a physical therapy center. He says that keeping his clients motivated to do their exercises at home is the most challenging part of his job.

It can be very frustrating for him when he works really hard to get someone to a particular place and then they don't continue doing what is needed.

Many times he sees clients after they have been on their own for awhile and haven't done the recommended exercises.

Getting daily exercises is a discipline that can be hard for most people. If your health depends on it, that is when it becomes much more crucial.

He sees several patients who are struggling with diabetes and need some help getting on a regular exercise program they will stick with.

If they follow his recommendations and stick with the plan, they can make a lot of improvements in their health and quality of life. It just takes commitment and discipline that can be very hard for a lot of people to follow through with.


I am amazed at how many different studies have been done showing the benefits of regular exercise.

I have read more than once that certain types of exercise are more beneficial than prescription medication when it comes to treating depression.

I don't think you would need to see an exercise physiologist to receive the benefits from this, but the motivation factor would certainly help.

It can be hard to discipline yourself to exercise on a regular basis - even more so if you are struggling with depression.

Exercise physiologists would also have the training and know which exercises would be the most helpful.

I think it would also be helpful if you were with other people, as this is always more motivating than when you try and exercise alone all the time.


My mom has rheumatoid arthritis and her doctor recommended she join an exercise physiologist program.

When you are having a lot of joint pain, the last thing you feel like doing is exercising, but they say that can be one of the most beneficial things you can do.

She has to be very careful of the type of exercise she does so she doesn't aggravate her condition and make it worse.

Before this, she never did any swimming, but has come to really enjoy it now. This is one of the most effective exercises for people who have joint pain.

This type of exercise does not jar your body, but helps you get your heart rate up, and strengthen and tone your muscles.

Working with an exercise physiologist gave her the confidence she needed to know she was doing the type of exercises that would give her the most benefit.


One of the most important qualifications when seeking exercise physiology jobs is to make sure you are accredited.

If you have the proper accreditation, your chances of finding a job are much better. That is really too bad that some of these jobs are being replaced with nurses.

A trained exercise physiologist has specific training for many different conditions that I can't imagine a nurse would receive in their nursing training.

I have a nephew who works in a sports clinic. He doesn't have an exercise physiologist degree, but the clinic he works in hires them for some of their open positions.


@feruze-- I don't think it's that bad. I'm pretty sure that even if clinical exercise physiology jobs are decreasing, people with this degree could easily switch to something else or find work in another state. Rehabilitation work or research are other fields they could work in.

People with a masters can always continue their education and teach at Universities in the same or related fields. I know that further education is not for everyone. But there are always plenty of positions for personal trainers and there can't be anyone better than an exercise physiologist for it.


@turquoise-- Well in the past, clinical exercise physiology was only carried out by people who had a four year degree in it. But lately, less and less clinical exercise physiologists are being hired for the job, at least in my state.

My cousin is a clinical exercise physiologist, she even did her Masters in the field and after a year on the job, she was laid off and has not been able to get another position. It seems she's over-educated for this position and hospitals and clinics now prefer to hire registered nurses!

Can you believe that?! It's kind of sad because you have people who are passionate about this job and have all of the qualifications to do it well, but they're not preferred because hospitals feel like saving money.

Plus, registered nurses are given so many responsibilities these days and I don't think that they can do everything, especially when they haven't been trained for it. People who want a physiology career are forced to think twice because the chance of getting a job are becoming slim unfortunately.


Can my family doctor send me to a clinical exercise physiologist simply at request?

I have diabetes and I'm overweight. I have been reading on various forums that reducing weight also reduces insulin resistance and can even reverse some types of diabetes. I take daily walks but it hasn't been enough to reduce my weight.

I have a friend who started swimming on the suggestion of a clinical exercise physiologist. She has something called chronic tendinitis. I think her tendons are inflamed and don't respond to treatment. This was preventing her from exercising. She now swims 3-4 times a week and has never been better. She recommended that I see an exercise physiologist too.

By the way, what kind of training do exercise physiologists receive? Do they need a four-year exercise physiology degree? Or can they go through like a two-year program and get certified?

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