What Does a Clinical Exercise Physiologist Do?

Healthcare is an immensely expansive line of work, and there are a number of health professionals that a single individual may encounter. An individual with cardiovascular issues, for instance, is likely to interact with a cardiologist, a primary care physician, nurses, EMS professionals like EMTs or paramedics, and exercise physiologists. 

Clinical exercise physiologists are specially trained healthcare professionals that can help with the management, prevention, and treatment of various health conditions. Below is a closer look at what exactly an exercise physiologist is, what they do, and when they may be valuable to your health. 

What Is an Exercise Physiologist?

An exercise physiologist in the United States is a healthcare professional who attains a clinical exercise physiologist certification from the American College of Sports Medicine. This certification requires an extensive understanding of physiology, disease processes, and exercise related to cardiac, pulmonary, metabolic, immunologic, hematologic, neuromuscular, and chronic musculoskeletal diseases. 

Many programs require both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in subjects such as exercise science, exercise physiology, or kinesiology. Additionally, to attain ACSM-CEP® certification, candidates must also be a certified clinical exercise specialist (CES) or a registered clinical exercise physiologist (RCEP).

This expansive wealth of knowledge about exercise physiology is used to provide the patient with tailored treatments that include patient assessment, health education, patient monitoring, and guidance on workouts designed to provide therapeutic benefits.

An exercise physiologist can work in a number of different settings, including inpatient settings and outpatient settings. Exercise physiologists can even do at-home monitoring. While there is significant variation in the exact setting an exercise physiologist works, their goals tend to be the same: utilizing exercise in a safe manner to provide therapeutic benefits. 

What Does an Exercise Physiologist Do?

The general goal of an exercise physiologist is to utilize exercise in a therapeutic capacity to improve overall health, manage symptoms of chronic disease, and reduce risk factors of more serious health issues. Doing this is easier said than done, as an exercise physiologist not only provides exercise guidance but also has to take into account an individual's specific conditions, needs, fitness level, and tolerability to exercise. 

Below are a few things that exercise physiologists will typically do as part of their treatment plans.

Examines Medical History

Examining the patient’s medical history is the most crucial task of an exercise physiologist. Implementing exercise safely yet effectively is largely dependent on the individual and any conditions they may have.

For instance, heart failure and hypertension are both treated differently. Both of these conditions are based in the cardiovascular system but require entirely different treatment plans. 

For someone with heart failure, an exercise physiologist typically focuses on improving quality of life and overall cardiovascular health without overworking the heart. On the other hand, for an individual with hypertension, a treatment plan could involve nutritional education paired with exercise to help lower hypertension and avoid further cardiovascular issues. 

Develops Appropriate Fitness Regimens

One of the key differences between an exercise physiologist and a regular athletic trainer is that an exercise physiologist is able to develop a fitness regimen for individuals with preexisting health conditions. On the other hand, an athletic trainer is better suited to create exercise programs for someone of average health.

Developing a customized fitness regimen plays an integral role in the service provided by an exercise physiologist. Exercise routines not only need to help improve physical ability and cardiovascular health, but they have to be within the patient's abilities, adapted to the patient’s specific needs, and monitored utilizing live monitoring equipment. 

Works With the Patient To Support Recovery

Creating therapeutic and safe exercise routines is an essential aspect of what an exercise physiologist does. However, they can also offer support in a variety of other ways, such as health education, nutritional advisement, and education on mental health. 

Educating patients on their own care has significant clinical benefits. Exercise physiologists can help empower patients by providing health education on their specific conditions and discussing how positive lifestyle modifications can support their treatment. 

When provided with the bigger picture and a deeper understanding of the “why,” patients can feel a greater sense of ownership over their treatment plan.

Nutrition is another area where an exercise physiologist can provide some value. While an exercise physiologist is no replacement for a full nutritionist, they can provide some general nutrition tips that can help you in your recovery or disease management. 

Some examples include eating a low-sodium diet if you have high blood pressure or reducing the number of trans fats in your diet if you have high cholesterol, heart disease, or heart failure. 

Mental and physical health are closely related, and exercise physiologists can provide education on some of these topics. Exercise physiologists are not a substitute for therapy or mental health guidance, but they can provide helpful insight into how mental health impacts your physical well-being. They can also provide some helpful tips for managing stress in healthy, constructive ways. 

When Should You See an Exercise Physiologist?

An exercise physiologist can help overall patient wellness, as well as help prevent heart conditions from progressing. 

Below is a closer look at some of the reasons why an individual may see an exercise physiologist. 

At a Doctor’s Recommendation

One of the most common ways that people are introduced to an exercise physiologist is by a physician's referral to a cardiac rehabilitation program. Cardiac rehabilitation programs are programs that focus on improving one's cardiovascular fitness and health through monitored exercise, health education, and support for making heart-healthy lifestyle changes. 

After a Procedure

People may also want to work with an exercise physiologist following a procedure, such as an angioplasty or stent placement following a heart attack. This is because patients recovering from a heart attack can be predisposed to experiencing a subsequent cardiac event. 

Enrolling in a cardiac rehab program led by an exercise physiologist can help reduce these risk factors while improving cardiovascular fitness and overall quality of life. 

After a Diagnosis

Exercise physiologists can also be extremely useful for individuals that have been diagnosed with specific conditions. If a physician believes that their patient may benefit from an exercise-based approach, they may recommend contacting an exercise physiologist

An exercise physiologist can develop a plan for the patient that considers their specific diagnosis, physical limitations due to their disease or comorbidities, and other specific needs. 

For instance, many patients work with exercise physiologists after a diagnosis of heart failure. Heart failure is a progressive and chronic disorder that impacts the ability of the heart to pump blood adequately. 

Heart failure tends to result from compounding poor circulatory health, and improving cardiovascular health can be a great way of managing the disease and slowing its progression. 

For Ongoing Support

There are a number of chronic conditions that have limited treatment options when it comes to traditional medicine. These conditions are where exercise physiologists can be incredibly valuable. 

Chronic, incurable diseases are lifelong conditions, and utilizing exercise in a therapeutic way can be immensely helpful in managing the diseases and their symptoms. A great example of this is chronic diseases of the lungs, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD directly impacts the efficiency of the lungs, which can reduce oxygen levels and lead to fatigue and shortness of breath from doing everyday activities. Utilizing an exercise program from an exercise physiologist, patients can work toward improving their cardiovascular endurance and health.

This can help improve their overall quality of life and reduce the frequency of fatigue and shortness of breath. 

How Can I Get Started With an Exercise Physiologist?

Traditionally, exercise physiologists are found within rehab facilities, but with the expansion of telemedicine, it has become easier than ever to get started with an exercise physiologist. Carda Health is a virtual cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation provider that allows patients to get the support and assistance they need from an exercise physiologist, all from the comfort of their own homes. 

Getting started with Carda is easy. Once you have been cleared for a cardiac rehab program by your primary care or cardiologist, Carda Health will send you a care package containing remote vital monitoring equipment, and you will be on your way toward getting a tailored program created by your own exercise physiologist. 

The Bottom Line

Exercise physiologists play an integral role within the healthcare system. These healthcare professionals bridge the gap between clinical medicine and therapeutic exercise, which can greatly improve patient care and help patients manage certain conditions and take charge of their recovery. 

By utilizing their specific knowledge of human physiology, exercise science, and disease processes, exercise physiologists are able to provide tailored therapeutic exercise programs and health education. If you’re interested in working with an exercise physiologist, talk to your primary care doctor today.


What is CEP? | Clinical Exercise Physiology Association (CEPA)

ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist® | ACSM

EIM in Action | Exercise is Medicine

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