A guide to exercise physiology in community health

Discover how exercise physiologists help participants enjoy improved quality of life.

Exercise physiologists (EPs) are allied health professionals qualified to provide exercise interventions to support people living with disability to enjoy a better quality of life by improving their overall health and wellbeing and functional capacity, which is the ability to perform the activities that are meaningful and important to them. 

As each participant’s needs and goals are different, EPs create tailored programs with specific and targeted exercises to help improve or regain health and wellbeing and the physical ability to perform the movements required to perform tasks and activities, from daily chores to taking stairs and playing a sport.  

To improve a participant’s functional capacity, an exercise physiologist might create an exercise program that strengthens their muscles, improves their flexibility, balance and coordination and cardiovascular fitness, which are all needed to move our bodies with greater ease, comfort and safety. 

“At Better Rehab, we practice a person-centred approach to exercise physiology. This means that our EPs create programs to meet each participant’s individual needs and personal preferences and goals, with an overarching focus on improving their quality of life,” explains Better Rehab’s Principal Clinician of Physiotherapy and Exercise Physiology, Todd Bartholomew. 

In addition to creating personalised exercise programs, EPs can also recommend lifestyle modifications to improve a participant’s health, help them prepare for participation in community activities, work or study, and to transition to public gyms and pools. An EP might also educate a participant’s family, carers and support workers to enable them to support their progress. 

The many benefits of exercise physiology 

Regular exercise can help people living with disability manage chronic pain, reduce their risk of secondary health conditions, and improve their mental health and social participation.  

Exercise can reduce anxiety, depression and stress by boosting mood, self-esteem, and brain function. There are many theories as to how exercise improves mental health, including its ability to increase blood circulation to the brain, improve sleep, trigger the release of feel-good chemicals endorphins and serotonin, and provide a distraction, social interaction, and outlet for self-expression and stress release. And with ‘gentle’ and repetitive rhythmic movements, like yoga and swimming laps, exercise can have calming and relaxing effect on the mind and body.  

In fact, Australian researchers recently found that physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress for people with mental health disorders and chronic disease. Their study also found that exercise was around one and a half times more effective than medications and that strength and resistance training had the most impact on the symptoms of depression, with tai chi and yoga the most effective at reducing anxiety and the symptoms of depression. 

The 4 steps to creating a personalised exercise program 

Our EPs take four steps to create tailored exercise programs for NDIS participants. 

Step 1: They conduct a thorough assessment of the participant’s functional capacity and overall fitness. 

Step 2: They then talk to the participant about their personal needs, preferences and goals, as well as the supports they have in place. 

Step 3: With this information in mind, our EPs select specific exercise interventions to help the participant improve their functional capacity, health, and quality of life. 

Step 4: Our EPs will then discuss their recommendations with the participant and their support network and together create a schedule for exercise sessions, including suitable locations, which can include their home, local park or gym. 

“Our exercise physiologists support participants with a wide range of conditions and they will often ‘think outside the square’ to create exercises to support participants with physical challenges to achieve their goals. Our EPs know that programs that are engaging, tailored and targeted achieve the best outcomes for participants,” says Todd. 

How EPs help improve functional capacity for people with autism spectrum disorder 

People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) experience communication and social interaction difficulties and have restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. They can also have heightened or reduced sensitivity to sounds, smells or touch. These characteristics vary from person to person and can create behavioural challenges and lead to reduced functional capacity, fitness, and participation in the activities of life, such as recreational activities, work, study and sports.  

Exercise physiologists are qualified to create programs for people with ASD to help improve their functional capacity and overall health through interventions targeted to 

  • Improve cardiovascular fitness; 
  • improve strength, balance and coordination; 
  • regulate sensory processing; 
  • reduce anxiety and stress; 
  • improve social, communication and motor skills through structured and repetitive movements; 
  • promote self-regulation and emotional stability; 
  • improve sleep habits including quality of sleep and ability to fall asleep. 

For people with ASD, regular targeted exercises can help improve their fine and gross motor skills, coordination, muscle strength, and balance, as well as their motor planning, mood and behaviour, and social and verbal and non-verbal communication skills.  

“ASD affects each person differently, so our EPs personalise every exercise program, selecting interventions that address their challenges and help them achieve their goals so they can enjoy a better quality of life. 

“For children and teens with ASD, our EPs will create engaging and fun programs with the activities and sports they enjoy, such as swimming and water play and ball games. Giving them a good experience of exercise and gradually growing their awareness of its benefits when they are young can motivate them to continue to be active throughout their lives, setting them up for better lifelong health,” says Todd. 

Ways EPs help people with MND maintain functional capacity 

Motor Neurone Disease (MND) affects the motor neurones, or nerves cells, in the brain and spinal cord that relay instructions to our voluntary muscles. As these cells become damaged and die, muscles grow weak, stiff, and waste, affecting the ability to move, perform tasks, walk, speak, swallow, and breathe. 

Exercise physiologists help people with MND move, walk and perform activities with greater ease and safety by choosing exercise interventions that improve their cardiovascular fitness, strengthen their muscles, reduce stiffness, pain and contractures, and improve their range of motion, coordination, and balance. In addition to improving a person’s functional capacity – their ability to perform daily activities – exercise can boost their mental health, which is often impacted by MND. 

“MND affects everyone differently, so it’s crucial that exercise programs are tailored to each participant. And as MND progresses relatively quickly, our EPs choose interventions that achieve the best results in a short period of time and closely monitor the participant’s progress and energy levels, and regularly adjust their programs. 

“Our EPs also often work collaboratively with a participant’s family and carers to ensure smooth and considered support, and often work with their other allied health clinicians, contributing their expertise to a comprehensive support program,” explains Todd. 

This approach is supported by MND Australia, which states that physical activity is ‘best undertaken’ with the guidance of a health professional, tailored to the person’s needs, preferences and abilities, and that fatigue is closely monitored throughout the activity. 

How EP interventions boost capacity in people with intellectual disability 

People with intellectual disability (ID) can have reduced fitness, spend more time being sedentary, and have limited functional capacity due to poor and delayed motor development, which is needed for moving, performing activities, and brain, speech and sensory development. 

Exercise physiologists can help people with ID improve their motor function and enjoy the many benefits of improved fitness and regular physical activity through personalised exercise programs. 

“Our EPs tailor programs to meet the needs of each person with ID, with exercise interventions that target specific areas to help them enjoy healthier and independent lives. 

“With improved fitness and physical ability, such as strength, balance, and coordination, children, teens and adults with ID can perform the activities that are important to them, and also participate in work, volunteering, recreational activities and sports, which brings them the benefits of social interaction, teamwork, and independence and the sense of accomplishment, belonging, purpose, and more,” explains Todd. 

Exercise physiologists’ vital contribution to the holistic care and support of participants 

Better Rehab’s EPs often work within multidisciplinary teams, or MDTs, comprising two or more allied health clinicians to deliver high quality and holistic support to participants with a wide variety of conditions. 

“Depending on their personal needs and goals, our EPs will work closely with a participant’s physiotherapist, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, and positive behaviour support practitioner, from the initial assessment onwards to create and deliver a comprehensive and coordinated program of support,” says Todd. 

If you would like to find out more about how our exercise physiologists can help you or a loved one enjoy a better quality of life, simply complete our enquiry forme so one of our team can get in touch with you.  

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