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Understanding the integrative nature of the different systems of the human body is essential for sports students. From a sport perspective, physiology is the study of how exercise alters the structure and function of the human body.

Physiologists need to understand the complex interactions between the body’s biological systems at rest, during exercise, and following chronic periods of exercise training, detraining and injury. As a result sport students spend time developing a deep understanding of the structure and function of the body’s biological systems, and importantly how they interact with each other.

As students’ physiology knowledge and understanding develops, they may choose to spend time considering how each system responds to different stressors, including: exercise, the environment and a combination of the two (click on the buttons below to explore some extreme combinations).

At university, sport students may also study specific branches of physiology such as nutritional physiology and cellular physiology.

NOTE: Both exercise and sport physiology are explored in sport degrees to enable students to work in both clinical and performance settings.

Here the physiologist seeks to understand the physiological demands of a swim performance and the characteristics an athlete requires to compete at the highest level.

It’s not just about sport

Physiologists work across the population (and not just with elite athletes). Click on the image to learn about the role of an exercise physiologist.

The word physiology was first used by the Greeks around 600 BCE to describe a philosophical inquiry into the nature of things.


Physiology Snapshot

Dr Alun Williams is a Sports Geneticist who looks at the genetics of elite athletes. Here’s how his research has played a part in global athletics.

Alun’s research group aims to apply genomics in elite sport to improve performance, reduce injury and reduce illness. They study the genomics of elite athletes who possess huge performance ability plus an ability to tolerate training and competition of extremely high volume and intensity with relatively few injuries and illnesses.

In 2021, Alun was asked as independent expert witness to present the genetic aspects of sport performance and sex testing in the Caster Semenya v IAAF case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Click on the image to discover how his research has played a part in global athletics.

Exploring Human Physiology

We are interested in our body’s responses to exercise, this includes how much fluid we lose when we exercise in different environments e.g. in warm climates when the external temperature is hot, or in cold climates where the environmental temperature (meaning we need to wear more clothing to keep warm). Try this experiment at home to discover how much fluid your body loses when you exercise.

  1. Firstly, as an introduction to what sport scientists do with athletes, watch this video (esp. the example of cyclist in chamber).
  2. Now lets have a look at how much fluids YOU lose when YOU exercise:
    • BODY MASS 1: Weigh yourself (naked) and record this figure (in kg)
    • Complete a safe exercise task (ideally >20 mins)
    • BODY MASS 2: Towel yourself dry to remove sweat and then weight yourself again (naked) and record this second figure (in kg)
    • CALCULATION 1: where a 1kg loss = 1L of fluid loss
      • [Body Mass 1] – [Body Mass 2] = loss in body mass
    • We know 1kg loss = 1L of fluid loss and therefore 1kg = 1L = 1000mL
    • CALCULATION 2: [loss in body mass] x 1000 = fluid loss (mL)
  3. For example:
    • Jessica records her naked body mass before [65.4kg] and after [64.9kg] going for a 6 mile run. In order to calculate her loss in body mass we need to calculate: [Body Mass 1] – [Body Mass 2] = Loss in Body Mass
    • CALCULATION 1: [65.4kg] – [64.9kg] = 0.5kg loss in body mass
    • We know 1kg loss = 1L of fluid loss and therefore 1kg = 1L = 1000mL
    • CALCULATION 2: 0.5 x 1000 = 500ml (0.5L) fluid loss
  4. To replace the fluid Jessica has lost during her run she needs to consume 1.5x the fluid lost (as we are not 100% efficient in absorbing the water we consume), therefore Heidi needs to consume 500mL x 0.5 = 750mL
    • CALCULATION 3: 0.5 x [fluid loss] = volume of fluid required post-exercise

Have you ever measured someone’s resting heart rate? As a sport student, this is something you’ll do in your first year (both manually and using heart rate monitors).

Resting heart rate is measured by counting the number of beats per minute of the heart while sitting still. A normal resting heart rate range is between 60 and 100 beats per minute (bpm).

  1. Before you start measurng someone’s heart rate, watch this short 3-minute NHS video.
  2. Ask your participant if they are happy for you to take their heart rate (or pulse).
  3. In a seated position, turn over the particpant’s wrist (palm up) and feel for the groove in their wrist (about 1 inch or 5cm from the base of their thumb).
  4. When you can feel the pulse start counting the number of beats in one minute.
  5. Record this figure and compare it with expected values.

A low heart rate is classified as a heart rate less than 60 bpm. The medical term for a heart rate of around or less than this is bradycardia. For some people such as athletes, bradycardia doesn’t pose a health risk. But if you have a low heart rate and are experiencing symptoms like fainting, fatigue and dizziness then you should make an appointment with your GP.