Paradigm Shifts in Exercise Physiology
Jeremy Fransen, MA
of New Mexico
Each of us
tends to think we see things as they are, that we are objective. But this is not the case. We see the world, not as it is, but as we
are- or, as we are conditioned to see it.
Thomas Kuhn introduced the phrase
‘paradigm shift’ in his highly influential landmark book titled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions . The term paradigm means perception,
assumption, model, theory, or frame of reference. When one experiences a paradigm shift, they
see things from a new and different perspective and realize that the old way of
thinking was incomplete or incorrect.
Kuhn makes his case for a paradigm shift by elucidating that every
significant scientific breakthrough has come when the old ways of thinking are
broken down and replaced by a new paradigm.
There have been several paradigm shifts within the relatively new field
of exercise physiology, but none more important than the current paradigms
Breaking from tradition is
difficult and is always met with resistance.
Virtually every great human achievement and discovery has been, at first,
discredited, obfuscated, and oftentimes met with physical violence.
The irony is that the fundamental task of science
is to explain phenomena by discovering or inventing general explanations for
natural events .
Does it seem logical
to discredit new ways of thinking based on the fact that they don’t support the
How do we know the current
dogma is correct?
These are the
questions exercise physiologists should ask when they think about pertinent
issues such as:
physiology / exercise science:
exercise physiology the same as exercise science?
Why do some refer to themselves as exercise
scientists (or exercise specialists, exercise technicians, etc.) and others as exercise
Why are some academic
programs under the title of exercise science (or human performance, sport
science, etc.) and yet others prefer to use exercise physiology?
exercise / endurance exercise:
Why has the field of exercise physiology
chosen to focus research and emphasis on endurance exercise at the expense of
Is one form or type
of exercise ‘superior’ to others?
Although resistance exercise and endurance training have their unique
physiologic advantages, what are the core issues that underlie the seemingly
divided nature of these two forms of exercise?
development / Professional stagnation:
Is it logical that exercise physiologists have their own professional
Why are exercise
physiologists slow to understand the important role of professional identity? Why
are exercise physiologists content to let multi-disciplinary organizations guide
the future of their chosen field?
Exercise Physiology / Exercise Science
behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within
The most pertinent issue today in
exercise physiology is the disconnection between students, teachers, and the
general public as to what is exercise
physiology. Much of this has to do with
the evolution of exercise physiology.
From a historical perspective, it is important to know that exercise
physiology developed from physical education . What was once Department of Physical
Education is now Department of Kinesiology (or Department of Exercise Science,
Human Movement Studies, Human Performance, and so forth). Through these departments arose the
sub-disciplines of physical education such as biomechanics, motor learning,
sports history, sport sociology, exercise psychology, and exercise
physiology. It seems logical that there should
be consistency in the naming of the department and the specific discipline.
Part of the problem is that departments
of basic and clinical science at most major research institutions are
understaffed and rarely advertise exercise physiology as the focus of the
department . Brooks et al. go on to say that the reason for this lack of
focus in major research institutions is their diverse missions that do not
include a health-and-fitness related purpose.
Another reason is that the National Research Council (NRC) does not rank
exercise science, kinesiology, physical education, or other similar named
departments (exercise physiology, sports science, etc.). Because of this, the institutions are
unwilling to allocate resources to departments that have no hope of attaining
an NRC ranking.
The basic and logical approach is
simple- pick one name to call the department: Exercise Science, Kinesiology, or
Next, define all
sub-disciplines within the exercise sciences such as biomechanics, sport
psychology, physical education, and exercise physiology.
Finally, rename and properly structure all the
disciplines of the exercise sciences within all academic programs throughout
the United States
From a critical thinking approach, the problem (and solution) is
Of course, there will
be paperwork to fill out, it will cost money, and I’m sure some will want to
debate the finer points.
The point is that exercise
physiologists need to join together and solve this urgent dilemma.
Using the new paradigm, it is apparent
that exercise science is a general term describing a diverse field of study
which includes exercise physiology.
Therefore, there has to be a fundamental change in the use of both
exercise science and exercise physiology.
Some may proclaim that the argument is just semantics; that it doesn’t
matter what we call ourselves! In
reality, it certainly does matter because a professional is defined by his or
her title. Until there is consensus and
change within the field, being stuck in the exercise science paradigm is one of
the deepest ruts all exercise physiologists must ultimately climb out of.
Exercise physiologists are not
sport scientists, exercise specialists, exercise technicians, or personal
trainers. The reasons are varied as to
why the different titles are used. Some
may want to focus on working with athletes whilst others decide to specialize
in the clinical setting. Although we all
have our areas of interest, there should be one person who knows and
understands all areas of exercise- clinical, research, sports-specific,
endurance training, resistance training, and everything in between. We could
create subtitles such as: lactate threshold specialist; clinical gerontologist
exercise specialist; EKG exercise technicians; exercise biochemist; or, how
about- neuromuscular exercise scientist?
Why not break everything down and create entire new fields of
study? The answer is that we don’t need
to. Exercise physiologists should be knowledgeable
in all of the above mentioned topics and then some. Over time, when all the dust settles with
regards to the title confusion, there will be one true exercise expert- the
Resistance Exercise / Endurance
should think things out fresh and not accept conventional terms and the conventional
way of doing things.
-- R. BUCKMINSTER FULLER
Although it is obvious exercise
physiology examines the role of exercise on the human body, it’s interesting to
think of our view of what exercise is.
In other words, the paradigm of what constitutes exercise has changed
over time. For example, at the turn of
the 20th century, exercising usually entailed performing callisthenic and
gymnastic type exercises along with some clubs, dumbbells, kettlebells, and pulleys. Exercise and health advocates of the time
such as Eugene Sandow were known for their feats of strength and
athleticism. Without a doubt, the
development and maintenance of muscular strength and health was paramount
during this time period.
Now let’s fast forward to 1969
with the publication of the book Aerobics
by Dr. Kenneth Cooper. In it, Dr. Cooper
extols the benefits of endurance training, which ultimately played a key role
in the aerobic fitness boom of the 1970s. The general public along with
exercise physiologists embraced aerobics as new research poured in raving of its
benefits. The jogging craze emerged as
thousands hit the streets with their new sweatsuits and high-performance running
shoes. However, Dr. Cooper issued a scathing
review of anaerobic exercise (i.e. resistance training) that only perpetrated
the prevailing myths of the time .
Lifting weights is riddled with
stereotypes such as being muscle bound (inflexible), slow, ignorant, and the
ever popular misconception of muscle turning into fat. Many women still believe that lifting weights
will cause them to “bulk up” like a bodybuilder. It is unfortunate that the general public
still believes in these outdated myths. Yet what is even more puzzling is how slow the
exercise physiology community embraced resistance training. Today it is less apparent, but still common
among undergraduate (and even some graduate) courses to only briefly touch upon
resistance training research and methodology.
Should resistance training
techniques be taught only by strength and conditioning specialists and personal
trainers? Considering that musculoskeletal
fitness (i.e. muscular strength, muscle endurance, bone strength) is one component
of physical fitness, why would exercise physiologists not want to become experts
in resistance training? With the other
components of physical fitness being cardiorespiratory endurance, body
weight/body composition, and flexibility, it seems foolish that exercise
physiologists would exclude one component of fitness in favor for another. This means that exercise physiologists are,
in essence, giving up one-fourth of the potential research, training, and job
opportunities to other, perhaps less qualified, individuals! Does this make sense?
There seems to be an underlying
rift between individuals that prefer endurance training and others who like to
lift weights. My crude generalization is
this: many endurance athletes consider weight lifters, strongman competitors,
bodybuilders, etc. to be unfit muscle-heads that are incapable of running
around the block without passing out.
Conversely, resistance trained athletes view endurance athletes as emaciated
and unable to lift anything but the pink dumbbells in the aerobics room.
Exercise physiologists should be
immune to such an attitude, but surprisingly, I still find hints of this
paradigm. Much of it has to do with
tradition. However, the point is we need
to break from the traditional paradigm that focuses on endurance exercise and expand
our knowledge and research in resistance training. While it is true that we all have preferences
when it comes to exercise, on a very basic level there is no difference between
endurance and resistance exercise because, well, they are both exercise! Unless we redefine exercise, exercise
physiologists should research, teach, and perform both resistance and endurance
exercise to be able to understand and appreciate the differences and to improve
their own health and fitness levels.
Professional Development / Professional Stagnation
that exercise physiology can grow into a profession from within sports medicine
is simply not true.
-- TOMMY BOONE
The most tragic example paradigm
entrapment is the widely held belief that exercise physiology is the same as,
or belongs to, sports medicine.
becomes obvious that exercise physiology is not sports medicine by reviewing
the American College
of Sports Medicine (ACSM)
website mission statement: The American College of Sports Medicine promotes and
integrates scientific research, education, and practical applications of sports
medicine and exercise science
maintain and enhance physical performance, fitness, health, and quality of
Notice that nowhere in the mission
statement is exercise physiology!
exercise science is used, but it should now be clear that exercise science is a
general term describing many professions including exercise physiology.
Now let’s look at the definition
of sports medicine on Wikipedia: Sports medicine specializes in preventing, diagnosing and
treating injuries related to participating in sports and/or exercise,
specifically the rotation or deformation of joints or muscles caused by
engaging in such physical activities.
Clearly, sports medicine specializes in injuries related to physical
After reading the above, the obvious question is this: If exercise
physiology is not sports medicine, why do exercise physiologists support
umbrella organizations such as ACSM at the expense of their own professional
organization- American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP)? There may be several reasons including
tradition, peer pressure from colleagues, and blind ignorance of not knowing
that we already have our own organization- ASEP!!! In fact, many in the exercise physiology
field simply do not care. I find this
amazing because if you don’t care about your profession, why are you in
Many will look at this section as simply ASEP vs. ACSM, which it is
not. There is no reason you can’t be a
member of both organizations. Athletic
trainers, physical therapists and physicians are all members of ACSM. The difference is that the other professions
have their own organization that supports them as professionals. Exercise physiologists did not have their own
organization until 1998 with the founding of ASEP. It has been 10 years and many in the field
still don’t understand that ACSM is not the organization of exercise
physiologists! Until the light bulb
switches on in the collective conscience of exercise physiologists around the
country, we will remain in the dark ages with respect to professional
This doesn’t mean things can’t change.
In many other countries including England,
Australia, Canada, Brazil,
and South Korea,
academics and professionals in the field have developed a professional identity
for exercise physiologists through the development of professional organizations
. In fact, if anything, the United States
is a good example of what not to do with
regards to professional development in exercise physiology. Dr. Robert Robergs from the University of New Mexico
put it this way, “Hopefully, other countries of the world will learn from the
inadequacies of the U.S.
model, develop a strong professional identity for exercise physiology, and reap
the benefits from such professionalism.”
Exercise physiologists throughout the U.S. need to come together and
support ASEP as their one and only professional organization. Being a member of other multi-disciplinary
organizations is perfectly fine as long as there is an understanding that other
organizations do not put the interest of the exercise physiologist as their
highest priority. Oftentimes, members of
other organizations will make statements to the fact that they have more members
or that they “control” exercise physiology.
First of all, it only makes sense that other organizations that have
been around for over 50 years will have more members. Along the same lines, by definition
multi-disciplinary organizations should have more members because they
represent more than one professional field.
Finally, the statement that one organization “controls” exercise
physiology in the U.S.
is absurd. ACSM does not control
exercise physiology. ASEP does not
control exercise physiology. Exercise physiologists control exercise
physiology! Remember, the future of
exercise physiology is in YOUR hands.
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- Siff, M.C.
(2003). Supertraining, Sixth edition. Denver, CO United States.
- Robergs, R.A. (2008). Exercise Physiology: An Electronic
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