I teach them about the evidence for different types of exercise prescription to treat different risk factors. What works and what doesn’t. This involves lectures, tutorials and practical classes and overseeing projects where my students work closely with members of the public to help improve their lifestyle choices.
I also conduct my research which aims to make exercise easier to do. I work on identifying physical activity and structured exercise prescriptions that successfully intervene with cardiovascular disease processes. With this I usually test participants’ heart function during exercise along with measuring their aerobic and muscular fitness.
I then train and supervise research students providing exercise training for my study participants using different prescriptions. I also help to operate the UNSW Medicine Lifestyle Clinic which is a clinic providing structured exercise classes and advice to members of the community to help intervene and rehabilitate multiple chronic diseases, including cardiovascular, neurological, diabetes, musculoskeletal and many more.
I also have a bit of an admin role in the School of Medical Sciences, which keeps me on my toes!
How long have you been doing this job and what first sparked your interest in this area?
I graduated from my undergraduate degree in 1995 and my first job was in cardiac rehabilitation in Queensland. I went back to do my PhD in 2006 part-time, graduating in 2012. I have been at UNSW in the Department of Exercise Physiology since July 2012.
As many kids do I wanted to go to the Olympics (I thought I could be good enough, but never was). I ended up with a major ankle injury which meant I could no longer do what I loved, so I decided to study it at university.
What do you like most about the job?
Looking after the patients and seeing their lives improve through risk factor and disease control, smiles on their faces, energy in their steps. I love improving exercise tolerance and quality of life. Two of the best experiences were when I got to witness one of my novel exercise prescriptions increase someone’s walking distance from 11 minutes when they first started working with me, to walking for over one hour 24 weeks later.
I mainly work with a population that struggle to walk due to intense cramping pain. Seeing this result from 45 minutes of exercise three days a week for six months was one of the highlights of my career.
My other most rewarding experience was getting to listen to a doctor tell a patient he no longer needed major heart surgery because of how much he had improved his heart function and exercise tolerance simply through my exercise prescription and his adherence to his daily walking.
I also love getting emails from students who have managed to nail exercise prescription simply because they remembered my stories from class. I love making that difference to people’s lives.
What was the most unexpected thing you have had to do in your job?
When I personally drove a patient to the hospital emergency department when he presented to do an exercise session with me and complained of extreme pain in his toe. When I checked his feet, his toe was a dark grey. Knowing his medical history, I put him straight in my car and drove him to emergency and sat with him until he saw the doctor.
He ended up in surgery that same day to open up one of his arteries that had been blocked due to peripheral artery disease. The surgeon put in a stent and restored blood flow to his foot. The surgeon then phoned me and told me I had literally saved his toe. I thanked the surgeon – but said I thought it was quite the team effort!
What is the worst thing you have had to do?
The hardest part of my job is having to tell patients that they may have some serious problems with their heart and they need to see a cardiologist. I do everything I can to ease the fear and always rebook them for another visit, as I know the medical profession will sort them out and in a month they will be back.
The rebooking often softens the blow. This always leads to the best part of my job, which is reducing their risk of having a cardiac event, increasing their ability to complete everyday tasks with ease, and ultimately lengthening their life by simply and safely increasing their cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness. This all leads to an increase in overall quality of life which puts smiles back on people’s faces.
How transferable are your skills ?
My job is very similar to physiotherapy, I could do one or two years of extra study to become a physiotherapist, but to be honest, I feel exercise physiology has a large enough scope to work with. The evidence is strong for exercise to be effective at intervening in many disease processes. Cardiovascular disease is just one of them. With my exercise physiology clinical skills, and my teaching and research skills I could teach or practise anywhere in the world, as long as they speak English!
What advice do you have for people wanting to get into this career?
Exercise Physiology is a university qualified profession, so you do need a university degree. It is a science-based degree, but if you didn’t study science at high school there are ways to complete bridging courses to help you gain entry into the degree. If you are unsure if it is what you want to do, offer to do some work experience in exercise physiology clinics.
Come and visit us at the UNSW Medicine Lifestyle Clinic to see what we do. Get in touch with Exercise and Sports Science Australia and find a clinic near you where you can volunteer your time to get some experience and see if you like it.
What personal skills do they need?
The most important skills would be patience, understanding, listening, compassion, empathy, communication, honestly, confidence, and knowledge. The more you practise, the more knowledgeable you become. We all have to start somewhere. Leverage off the experts in your field to build your own knowledge.
I love teaching students who are thirsty for knowledge. Expanding a student’s practice portfolio, helping them to understand there is always room to learn new things, and developing passionate clinicians who truly move mountains for patients and help them climb them is truly the best part of my career.
Dr Belinda Parmenter is Deputy Head of School of Medical Sciences (Operations) | Accredited Exercise Physiologist from the UNSW Department of Exercise Physiology