Exercise physiology is a branch of the biological sciences and is concerned with the way in which the body responds to exercise and training.

Exercise physiologists typically provide scientific support at various levels to athletes and teams within a single sport or several sports. This may involve monitoring training through the measurement and assessment of such physical functions as:

  • respiration;
  • metabolism;
  • body composition;
  • muscle;
  • nutrition;
  • the nervous, pulmonary and cardiovascular systems.

Exercise physiologists may develop fitness-training programmes to make sure athletes adequately prepare for competition. They also work with people to improve fitness or to help prevent and treat illness.

Responsibilities

Tasks carried out by an exercise physiologist can include:

  • fitness testing of athletes and team members so that an accurate physiological profile of the individual can be obtained;
  • developing specific fitness training programmes and monitoring adherence to them;
  • providing regular monitoring and reassessment of an athlete's training plan;
  • liaising with coaching staff to maximise the effects of training;
  • educating and advising athletes and coaches on areas such as heart rate monitoring, recovery techniques, hydration strategies, overtraining, acclimatisation and periodisation (the breaking down of a training programme into a cycle of sub-programmes);
  • providing benchmark physiological information to enable long-term athletic development;
  • working in collaboration with other sport and exercise professionals such as physiotherapists, dietitians, strength and conditioning coaches and sport psychologists;
  • using specialist resources and equipment such as aqua pacers, osmometers and electronic timing systems;
  • producing reports and longitudinal studies;
  • keeping up to date with ongoing research;
  • raising awareness of health and fitness issues and promoting the benefits of sport and exercise;
  • attending local, regional and national meetings, seminars and conferences;
  • teaching on academic courses.

Those working as clinical exercise physiologists (rather than in a sports setting) will typically work as part of a multidisciplinary team of clinicians and allied health professionals, with the aim of providing expert advice on exercise for people with chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Other duties may include teaching and presenting to allied health professionals and other medical staff, and working with community groups, volunteers and local councils.

Salary

  • Salaries can vary greatly depending on the type of employer.
  • Exercise physiologists employed in the sports sector may earn £18,000 to £35,000. For those working in high-profile sport science, salaries can exceed £60,000 and may reach up to £100,000.
  • Clinical exercise physiologists working in the National Health Service (NHS) are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. You would typically start at the lower end of Band 5 (£21,478 to £27,901) and would need to undertake a considerable amount of continuing professional development (CPD) to progress up the pay scale.
  • Salaries for exercise physiology lecturers in higher education start in the region of £30,500. Details of the pay scale for lecturers can be found at the University and College Union (UCU).

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are irregular and include evenings and weekends to cover appointments with clients. When on tour or at training camps with athletes or teams, working hours may be long.

Part-time work and self-employment is possible. Consultancy work is also available for experienced and accredited physiologists.

What to expect

  • Exercise physiologists working within sport usually work either in a laboratory or in the field. Those working as clinical exercise physiologists are typically based in hospitals, medical centres and private healthcare organisations.
  • Although career opportunities available to sport and exercise physiologists are currently expanding, competition for jobs is fierce and considerable postgraduate training/experience is usually required.
  • Dress code depends on the particular area of work. A uniform is often supplied or appropriately smart sportswear is expected.
  • Opportunities exist across the UK and abroad.
  • Travel and time away from home may be required to attend training camps, competitions, fixtures and events.
  • For those working with children and young people, a Disclosure and Barring Service check may need to be carried out.

Qualifications

A degree in sports science or a closely-related subject is usually required to become an exercise physiologist. Relevant undergraduate sport and exercise science degrees are based around three aspects of science: physiology, biomechanics and psychology, and graduates are expected to have a broad knowledge base covering all three aspects and interdisciplinary approaches.

Entry without a relevant degree is not usually possible. Having studied physical education, sports studies or biology at A-level may be helpful for getting onto a sports science degree course.

Some HND and foundation degree courses in subjects such as sports performance have formal links to a specific degree course, guaranteeing a place if certain grades are achieved.

Some degree courses are endorsed by The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), which means that the curriculum, resources and opportunities that the courses offer are appropriate for a career in sport science. For details see the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) Course Finder.

A postgraduate qualification, such as an MSc in sport and exercise physiology or a relevant PhD, is advantageous, and sometimes essential for certain jobs. Postgraduate study enables you to add value to your first degree and develop specialist knowledge and skills in one or more specific aspects of sport and exercise science. Search for postgraduate courses in sport and exercise physiology.

Undergraduate and postgraduate students studying a subject related to sport and exercise science are eligible to join BASES as student members. Benefits include access to conferences and workshops, a quarterly magazine and discounts on sports science books and resources. The members' area of the website has useful podcasts, blogs and a discussion forum.

Skills

You will need to demonstrate:

  • key technical skills and knowledge;
  • communication skills;
  • self-motivation and the ability to motivate others;
  • ability to prioritise, balance conflicting demands and meet deadlines;
  • teamworking skills;
  • presentation and report-writing skills;
  • a willingness to learn and the determination to succeed;
  • a passion for high performance sport.

Work experience

Although job opportunities in sport and exercise science are increasing, the number of sport and exercise science graduates is also growing, making competition for jobs intense. Relevant work experience in a sports or fitness setting, through work shadowing or volunteering, is extremely valuable and will help you to find out what the work is really like. See the careers section of the BASES website for tips on gaining work experience and placements.

Employers

Exercise physiologists are employed by sports organisations and in research centres, academic institutions, hospitals and medical centres.

In addition to research and applied/clinical support work, many often teach academic courses in exercise physiology, applied human physiology, environmental physiology, exercise biochemistry and nutrition (to students of sport and exercise science, physical education, medicine, nursing and other related fields).

Many hospitals and primary care trusts (PCTs) appoint exercise specialists to work in areas such as cardiac rehabilitation and health promotion.

Typical employers include:

  • UK institutes of sport;
  • national governing bodies;
  • football clubs and other sports teams;
  • commercial sports companies;
  • universities and other academic institutions;
  • hospitals, medical centres and private healthcare organisations - for clinical exercise physiologists.

Look for job vacancies at:

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Exercise physiologists often complete a combination of on-the-job training, working alongside a more experienced colleague, with attendance at courses and workshops. A first aid qualification is usually required.

Many exercise physiologists work towards accreditation with The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES). The usual way to do this is by completing the BASES Supervised Experience (SE) process.

You will need to have already completed a relevant degree in sports science or a related subject and must go on to do a postgraduate degree or be able to show a similar level of knowledge.

In addition, you will need to have 500 hours of logged supervised practice, must attend a number of BASES workshops and demonstrate you have attained the required level of competency in the BASES standards of proficiency. It is possible to complete SE within two years but it usually takes longer.

Those who already have significant experience working within the profession may be in a position to apply directly for accreditation without supervised experience. For more information on the process see BASES Supervised Experience. Once accredited, exercise physiologists are able to use the title 'BASES Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist'.

It is important to carry out continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career and BASES holds annual conferences and a variety of workshops which can help with this.

Career prospects

For the first few years of your career, it is likely that you will be working towards The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) accreditation. This involves undertaking supervised experience and requires completion of an appropriate programme of continuing professional development (CPD), including BASES-approved workshops.

It is common for exercise physiologists to study for further academic qualifications, such as a relevant Masters or PhD, or to gain professional qualifications.

For example, clinical exercise physiologists specialising in cardiac rehabilitation may be sponsored to gain the British Association for Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation (BACPR) Level 4 Exercise Instructor Training qualification.

Courses run by the UK Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA), for professionals who design and implement strength training and conditioning programmes, are also possibilities for those looking to specialise.

It is important that exercise physiologists remain up to date with the latest research and developments in the field, so that they can continue to be innovative in their practice.

Once you have gained experience, it is possible to become self-employed by opening your own practice or to start working on a consultancy basis. You may move into specialised related areas such as sports development.