If you're interested in the way the body responds to exercise and training, then a career as an exercise physiologist could be for you

As an exercise physiologist you'll investigate how people respond and adapt to muscular activity and will use your skills and knowledge to improve their performance and fitness levels or to help prevent or treat illness.

You'll typically provide scientific support to athletes and teams within a single sport or several sports. This may involve monitoring training through the measurement and assessment of physical functions such as respiration, metabolism and the nervous, pulmonary and cardiovascular systems. You might also be involved in developing fitness-training programmes to make sure athletes adequately prepare for competition.

If working as a clinical exercise physiologist in a hospital setting, you'll provide expert advice on exercise for people with a range of chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease, diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Responsibilities

As an exercise physiologist, you'll typically need to:

  • fitness test athletes and team members to build up an accurate physiological profile
  • develop tailored fitness training programmes
  • monitor and reassess training plans on a regular basis
  • liaise with coaching staff to maximise the effects of training
  • educate and advise athletes and coaches on areas such as heart rate monitoring, recovery techniques, hydration strategies, overtraining and acclimatisation
  • provide benchmark physiological information to enable long-term athletic development
  • work in collaboration with other sport and exercise professionals such as physiotherapists, dietitians, strength and conditioning coaches, and sport psychologists
  • use specialist resources and equipment such as aqua pacers, osmometers and electronic timing systems
  • produce reports and longitudinal studies
  • keep up to date with ongoing research
  • raise awareness of health and fitness issues and promote the benefits of sport and exercise
  • teach on academic courses.

If you're working as a clinical exercise physiologist, you'll generally need to:

  • perform a range of investigations, including exercise tolerance tests, to assess patient risk
  • work directly with patients on how to make changes to their lifestyle
  • refer patients where necessary to other specialists
  • work as part of a multidisciplinary team including clinicians and allied health professionals
  • teach and present to allied related medical staff
  • work with community groups, volunteers and local councils to raise awareness of the benefits of exercise.

Salary

  • Exercise physiologists employed in the sports sector may earn between £18,000 and £35,000. If you work in high-profile sport science, salaries can exceed £60,000 and may reach up to £100,000.
  • Clinical exercise physiologists working in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates. You will typically start at the lower end of Band 5 (£21,909 to £28,462) and will need to undertake a considerable amount of continuing professional development (CPD) to progress up the pay scale.
  • Salaries for qualified exercise physiology lecturers in higher education typically range from £23,952 to £36,162. Details of the pay scale for lecturers can be found at the University and College Union (UCU).

Salaries can vary greatly depending on your employer and the type of work you're involved in.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours typically include evenings and weekends to cover appointments with clients. When on tour or at training camps with athletes or teams, your working hours may be long. If you're working in a hospital, your working hours are more likely to be Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

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 typically work either in a laboratory or in the field. If you're working as a clinical exercise physiologist, you'll usually be based in hospitals, medical centres and private healthcare organisations.
  • Although more career opportunities are becoming available, competition for jobs is fierce.
  • Opportunities exist throughout the UK and abroad.
  • You may need to spend time away from home to attend training camps, competitions, fixtures and events.
  • If you work with children and young people, you'll need to undergo a Disclosure and Barring Service check.

Qualifications

You'll usually need a degree in sports science or a closely-related subject. Relevant undergraduate sport and exercise science degrees are based around physiology, biomechanics and psychology, and you'll be expected to have a broad knowledge base covering all three subjects and interdisciplinary approaches.

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. See the BASES Course Finder.

As competition for jobs is strong, it can be useful to have a postgraduate qualification specialising in sport and exercise physiology or a relevant PhD. Search for postgraduate courses in sport and exercise physiology.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • key technical skills and knowledge
  • communication skills to work effectively with athletes, coaches, healthcare and other associated professionals
  • self-motivation and the ability to motivate others
  • the 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.

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 vital and will help you to find out what the work is really like. Decide if you want to work in a particular sport and, if so, get experience, for example as a coach or fitness trainer, in this area.

Employers

As an exercise physiologist, it's possible to work in a sport or health setting or follow a career in teaching or research. Depending on your career path, you'll typically be employed by:

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

With experience it's possible to work on a self-employed or consultancy basis.

Look for job vacancies at:

Your academic department and university careers services may also have details of vacancies.

Professional development

You will usually receive on-the-job training, working alongside a more experienced colleague, supplemented by relevant courses and workshops.

Many exercise physiologists work towards accreditation with BASES as a sport and exercise scientist. The usual way to do this is by successfully completing the BASES Supervised Experience (SE) process. This involves either taking a postgraduate degree or showing that you have a similar level of knowledge. You'll also need to have 500 hours of logged supervised practice and must attend a number of BASES workshops to show that you've attained the required level of competency in the BASES standards of proficiency for sport and exercise scientists. Once you've registered for SE you can use the name 'Probationary Sport and Exercise Scientist' until you're accredited or for a maximum period of six years.

Those who already have significant experience working within the profession may be in a position to apply directly for accreditation without supervised experience. Once accredited, you can use the title 'BASES Accredited Sport and Exercise Scientist'. Once you've become an accredited member of BASES, you're eligible to become a Chartered Scientist (CSci), which recognises high levels of professionalism and competence in science.

It's also common for exercise physiologists to study for further academic qualifications, such as a relevant Masters or PhD, or to gain professional qualifications. You'll need to carry out continuing professional development (CPD) throughout your career in order to keep your skills and knowledge up to date. This can be done through taking courses in your chosen area of specialism and by attending BASES conferences and events.

Career prospects

There isn't a set career structure within exercise physiology and you'll have to be proactive in your approach to moving your career forward. You're likely to spend the first few years working towards BASES accreditation in your chosen area of exercise physiology, e.g. working in a sporting, health or academic setting.

Within your area of work it's possible to specialise further. For example, clinical exercise physiologists might specialise in cardiac rehabilitation or respiratory physiology. If you're working in a sport setting, you may choose to specialise in strength and conditioning. Specialisation may require undertaking further training and qualifications.

Once you've got experience, you can open your own practice or start working on a consultancy basis. You may move into related areas such as sports development.

In addition to research and applied/clinical support work, there are also opportunities to 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.