Public Health: A New Frontier for Exercise Science Professionals

Many people are confused about what the term public health means.  As I have been working on the development of an academic course I have found myself having to explain to others what public health is.  Public health is a field that encompasses many disciplines in an effort to promote and protect health and prevent disease and disability in defined populations and communities. We’re not talking about individuals and their health behaviors. Public health deals with large groups of people and health issues which can be defined very differently depending on what health issue we are talking about.  Groups of people can be defined by things like location or where they physically live, for example, by city.  Or, populations can be defined/grouped by a demographic like age, gender, and so on.

Why am I blogging about public health?  I feel it’s necessary for all allied health  professionals to have a basic understanding and appreciation of they role they play in our public health system.  Our country is not going to address the obesity or cardiovascular disease epidemics on the scale we need to by having everyone pony up money for a personal trainer. We need widespread, systematic approaches for tackling the growing number of chronic diseases that are negatively affecting our quality of life and bogging down our health care system.

So, even though the life expectancy of Americans has increased, our leading causes of death have shifted from communicable/infectious diseases to chronic diseases.  No longer are we dying of pneumonia, tuberculosis and intestinal issues.  Now, we are dying of heart disease, cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases.  As many states have worked to improve the health of the general public with approaches like vaccines, health policy, and so forth, these growing chronic diseases that are killing us have become a major health burden.  They have also presented a new and growing opportunity for fitness and wellness professionals to work within that sector to try to impact large groups of people beyond just the individual or one-on-one basis. (Not that working with individuals is not important, it is.  We just aren’t going to solve a major public health problem this way.)

Over the past several decades it has become abundantly clear that there are health and fitness benefits to physical activity.  In addition, it is now evident that physical activity can PREVENT or LOWER THE RISK of developing many chronic diseases that are now so prevalent in our society.  This intersection of trying to prevent chronic disease and the promotion of physical activity as a preventative tool has brought about a (fairly) new discipline of public health.  In response to this, a professional organization was formed in 2006:    The National Society of Physical Activity Practitioners in Public Health  In addition, they have collaborated with the American College of Sports Medicine to develop a new certification for those working in that sector. The Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist certification is described this way:

Be a powerful leader and promote physical activity in public health. The ACSM/NPAS Physical Activity in Public Health Specialist (PAPHS) engages key decision makers at the national, state or local level. A PAPHS conducts needs assessments, plans, develops and coordinates physical activity interventions. A PAPHS is also called upon to provide leadership, develop partnerships and advise local, state and federal health departments on all physical activity-related initiatives.

I see this junction where the two fields meet as having incredible professional potential for exercise science professionals.  This is a setting worth considering yet many people are not aware of the possibilities.  Most public health departments have health promotion and chronic disease prevention departments where we are seeing more and more professionals with some type of exercise science or related background.  For those who are new or considering the field of exercise science, I encourage them to explore this career setting.  It allows for a means to potentially impact large groups of people and ultimately address chronic disease on the scale we need to, now and in the future.

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