What is exercise science?

Exercise science is a discipline that applies the principles of the scientific method to exercise. The primary principle of science is that of an evidence-based approach. That is, exercise scientists try to base their decisions on evidence from research studies. This is not always possible, and therefore experience does play its part. However, the basis for the decision-making process is always the evidence from peer-reviewed research studies. Why do we use research studies as evidence? Well, as scientists we believe that evidence from research studies provides the best source of information on which to base our decisions, as opposed to other ways of making decisions, like experience or intuition. I discuss the research process more below (Exercise science research). Exercise science has three broad sub-disciplines: (1) physiology (2) biomechanics and (3) psychology. I’m an exercise/sport physiologist, so I’m mostly interested in how our physiological systems, like the cardiovascular system, responds and adapts to both acute and chronic exercise. Through an understanding of how the body responds and adapts to exercise we might just be able to construct better training programs or monitor the training response in a better way. This applies to both health and sport. The world is in the middle of an obesity epidemic and the problem is only getting bigger (pardon the pun). So understanding ways in which we can help people to maintain or lose body fat is really important for the health of the population. For sports performance, an area i also work, the goal is to understand how athletes respond to the stress of training. This is important because the goal of a training programme is to produce the largest training adaptations without any negative side effects, such as injury or illness. So, being able to accurately quantify the total training stress for an individual athlete is crucial if we are to develop individualised training programs that maximise training adaptions in an efficient manner.

How do I become an exercise scientist?

To be considered eligible for membership of a professional association in exercise and sport science, such as the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences or Exercise and Sport Science Australia, you need a minimum of an undergraduate degree. This usually involves three to four years of study leading to the award of a Bachelor degree. Many who finish a B.Sc. often go on to study for higher degrees such as a Ph.D., which is a degree awarded after a period of full-time research, usually three years. In Australia, the higher education system is a little different, so I completed a three year undergraduate pass degree followed by a one year Honours degree, then finally a Ph.D. In the UK students are usually awarded an Honours degree after three years of study.

Exercise science teaching and learning.

As a university academic I teach undergraduate students and supervise Ph.D. and M.Sc. postgrads. Teaching undergrads involves giving lectures, conducting laboratory sessions, helping students if they have problems, managing other staff members and working in committees. As someone who is interested in digital technology I try to use modern approaches to teaching and learning in my classes. For example, a few of the technologies that I use regularly are:

  • GradeMark - for online marking of assignments. You can create pre-formatted comments and then drag-and-drop onto the assignment. You can also create a marking scheme that automatically calculates the final mark.
  • Socrative - is a student response system that allows students to ask questions and answer quizzes in class.
  • iPod Touch - I use these in class for Socrative and also to allow students to download research papers and search Pubmed.
  • Screenflow - In semester 2 2012 I ran an iOS programming course for my students. I used Screenflow to create a series of iOS programming screencasts for that course that are now available on YouTube.
  • iMovie/iDVD - In previous years I have created short videos of laboratory skills, such as taking skinfolds. These videos were then burned to DVD and given to the students so they could preview each lab and then review what we did after the lab.
  • GarageBand - In previous years I have used GarageBand to create podcasts for students.
In future I will be using the ‘flipped’ classroom model as much as possible. My preference is for students to engage in active learning rather than the passive forms we currently use, such as the lecture. There will be significant barriers to implementing this model in higher education but I’m convinced of its benefits.

Exercise science research.

Research is the cornerstone of all scientific disciplines, and so exercise and sport science are no different. I have published about 30 studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals. You can search PubMed for my name to find them. The research process is quite complex with whole books written about it, but I can tell you a little about how it works. It all starts with a question… e.g. how much physical activity do you need per day to stay healthy, or how might we measure how much training an athlete has done? The question will then direct the type of data that needs to be collected and analysed. For the physical activity example, the researcher would first need to define what they mean by ‘physical activity’ and ‘healthy’. They would also need to determine how they were going to measure physical activity (step counts, heart rate, oxygen consumption etc). This type of research question is best answered by a prospective training study, where a group of people are tracked over time to determine the relationships between the amount of physical activity they do and any change in their ‘healthiness’. So, at the start of the study the researchers would measure a bunch of variables that best represent the health status of the participants. They would then track their physical activity over a given period of time (maybe 6-12 months) and then re-measure those same variables after the intervention period. Relationships could then be established to see if those who completed the most physical activity maintained or increased their healthiness.

Applied sport science.

One of the areas i’m also involved in is applied sport science support. That is, assisting professional teams with their training and monitoring. I’ve recently worked with Hull KR who compete in the English Superleague (Rugby League), and also Hull City FC who compete in the English Premier League (Football). This support work involved assessing the fitness of players, together with daily monitoring. The daily monitoring involves measuring the training loads through GPS, accelerometry, session-RPE and heart rate, together with collecting a number of subjective measures such as sleep quality and muscle soreness. Other measures such as heart rate variability are also collected via an iPhone app called ithlete.