Getting off the starting blocks
With so many different kinds of exercise experts spruiking their services, it can be confusing to know which one is right for your needs or what you should expect from them. As a starting point, exercise experts fall into two broad categories: fitness professionals from the sport and recreation sector, or allied health professionals from the health care and medicine sector.
If you're otherwise healthy and just want to get fit, tone up or improve your sporting performance, you could try a fitness professional. But if you have health problems or injuries, you're better off visiting an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist.
We take a look at the following exercise experts and what they have to offer:
Video: Karina Bray talks to a fitness trainer, a sports physiotherapist, and an exercise physiologist.
There are many suitably qualified and registered fitness professionals around to help you get fit and tone up. This category includes personal trainers, gym instructors and group exercise leaders. Generally, they're best suited to people with no health conditions or disabilities, and for whom exercise is a low-risk activity.
Fitness professionals undergo training through the vocational education and training (VET) system – with approved courses delivered by TAFE institutes and private colleges – and learn about human anatomy and physiology, biomechanics (body movement), posture and flexibility, nutrition and exercise physiology. Training programs vary greatly in how much time it takes to qualify for an award – through TAFE it may take one year to qualify as a personal trainer, but through private colleges it can take as little as seven weeks.
The minimum qualification for a fitness instructor is Certificate III, which qualifies the recipient to be a gym, exercise or aqua instructor. They can plan, lead and instruct basic exercise programs and activities for improved aerobic fitness, flexibility and strength, and perform fitness assessments for individuals.
The next level up from a fitness instructor is a Certificate IV, which leads to a vocational role of exercise trainer, most commonly as a personal trainer. A personal trainer is qualified to design and deliver an exercise program to help you achieve your goals. They can help to motivate you, help you with technique (efficiency and safety), monitor your progress, adjust your exercise program in response to your changing fitness level, offer healthy eating information and keep you enjoying your workouts.
Exercise trainers may specialise in programs for older adults or children, or aqua training. You can hire a personal trainer one-on-one for about $50-90 an hour, though you can split the cost among friends if the trainer offers a small group service.
For more information about how to choose a fitness instructor or exercise trainer, including checking for professional registration and insurance, read our Guide to buying personal training services.
Allied health professionals
Allied health professionals will have tertiary qualifications, and are suitable for people who are recovering from injury or illness, whose current lifestyle means they need extra supervision for starting an exercise program, or even accomplished exercisers who want to take things to a higher level.
Accredited exercise physiologists (AEPs) are tertiary-trained allied health professionals who provide exercise therapy and lifestyle interventions for the prevention and management of chronic disease, injury and disability. They're a relatively new health profession, and many people don't know much about them – or that they may be entitled to a Medicare-funded exercise program with an AEP.
As members of the health care and medical sector, AEPs approach exercise as health professionals, rather than as fitness instructors or personal trainers who approach it from a sports and recreation perspective. AEPs use exercise in clinical practice as an integral part of your health-care plan, treating people with a diverse range of health conditions including depression, cancer, osteoporosis, obesity and diabetes.
Working closely with your doctor, an AEP will devise a self-management program for you to treat or manage your health condition/s. After an initial consultation to develop an exercise plan, you'll likely have a few more sessions over the subsequent months, with occasional visits as necessary after that. Some AEPs also conduct classes and group sessions designed for specific patient groups at the practice.
Exercise physiologists undergo at least four years of university training in exercise and sports science, covering biomechanics, physiology, psychology and nutrition. Undergraduate degrees may be called a Bachelor of Health Science or Applied Science in exercise science, or a Bachelor of Exercise and Sports Science. Candidates with an undergraduate degree in human movement studies or similar can qualify as an exercise physiologist at postgraduate level with a Masters in exercise physiology.
With appropriate qualifications and experience, exercise physiologists are eligible to join Exercise and Sports Science Australia (ESSA), the peak body for exercise physiologists and sports scientists. You can find or check the credentials of an exercise physiologist on ESSA's website.
As allied health professionals, exercise physiologists offer a Medicare rebate for up to five sessions per year (which is generally sufficient) to people with certain conditions upon referral from a doctor. They also do work under WorkCover and for veterans. Out-of-pocket costs vary – some will bulk bill, so there's no cost to you, while others will charge a fee – so check when you make an appointment. Most private health insurers offer rebates for exercise physiology – check with them for details.
Known primarily for providing passive manual and manipulative treatment and rehabilitation after injuries and other trauma (including surgery), physios also provide recommendations for active exercise. Apart from one-on-one work, they may offer group sessions for pilates, core stability and strength training, or for specific groups such as people with incontinence, osteoporosis or back pain, or pregnant/post-natal women. If you've been seeing a physio for an injury or disability, they may prescribe an exercise program as an adjunct to therapy, or as a management or treatment tool in its own right.
Physiotherapists undergo a minimum four years of university studies to obtain a Bachelor of Physiotherapy or a Bachelor of (Applied) Science in physiotherapy; graduates in related disciplines can study physiotherapy at postgraduate level. Physiotherapists must be registered with the Physiotherapy Board of Australia to practise in Australia. They may also be a member of the Australian Physiotherapy Association, the peak body for physios in Australia.
The cost of an initial consultation typically ranges from about $65 to $85; subsequent consultations are a little cheaper. Classes cost around $30, but range from less than $20 through to $70 or more for small groups or one-on-one sessions. Rebates are available through private health insurance – check with your insurer which physio services are covered, what the rebate is and your annual limit. Some physio services for people with certain conditions can be bulk billed on Medicare with a doctor's referral – ask your doctor if you qualify.
University-qualified sports scientists are trained to help both the general public and sportspeople achieve the best possible sporting performance. They apply knowledge and techniques from many areas, including sports physiology, biomechanics, motor control and development, nutrition, psychology and skill acquisition. Their main role is to devise training programs for optimum performance, including preparation, recovery and the psychological aspects of performance.
Although sports scientists are traditionally employed by sports institutes, professional sporting teams, or in a research capacity by universities, many provide private consultancy services for amateur sporting enthusiasts. Sports scientists do undergraduate studies in exercise science or human movement studies, and generally do postgraduate specialisation in sports science. They can also gain formal accreditation with ESSA.
Sports physician or sports medicine doctor
A sports physician is a medical practitioner who has gained specialist standard qualifications in sport and exercise medicine, and holds the qualification of Fellow of the Australasian College of Sports Physicians.
A sports medicine doctor has typically qualified as a GP then completed additional formal training in sports medicine, such as diagnosing and coordinating the management of acute or chronic musculoskeletal or sports injuries. These injuries can involve muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, cartilage and nerves. Sports medicine doctors may work in conjunction with physiotherapists and massage therapists, or refer you to specialists such as radiologists and orthopaedic surgeons.
Using exercise as medicine
Clinical research has consistently shown that exercise, at the correct intensity and duration, decreases the risk of disease (such as cancer and cardiovascular disease), chronic health conditions (such as diabetes, hypertension, arthritis and osteoporosis) and obesity, as well as improving overall quality of life and mental health.
Exercise is Medicine Australia is an initiative from ESSA and the American College of Sports Medicine, and aims to get doctors prescribing exercise – via qualified allied health professionals – for prevention, treatment and management of many chronic diseases. The website includes fact sheets about exercise and various diseases and conditions.
Safe to start?
If you're ready to start exercising but haven't been physically active for a while, it's recommended you see a doctor first if you:
- are over 40
- get very breathless or suffer chest pains from moderate physical activity
- often faint or have spells of severe dizziness
- think you might have heart disease or if your doctor has said you have heart problems
- have certain heart disease risk factors - such as smoking, being overweight, high blood cholesterol or high blood pressure
- are pregnant.
If your doctor has any concerns about your health in relation to exercising, they may refer you to an exercise physiologist, physiotherapist or another appropriate allied health professional.