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What is Integrative Physiology?

By Brenda Scott
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Physiology is a branch of biology which studies all functions of the living body, including mechanical, physical and biochemical. Integrative physiology, also known as exercise science, is the study of how the human body responds to external and internal stimuli, including physical exercise and stress, environmental conditions and disease. This field bridges all of the sciences which measure the response of human biological systems including anatomy, biology, biochemistry, biomechanics, chemistry, mathematics, neuroscience, physics, physiology and statistics.

One of the purposes of integrative physiology is to develop a multi-disciplinary approach to studying the physiology of disease. This requires not only a knowledge of the interrelated functions of organs and systems in the body, but also the ability to utilize advanced technologies in optical imaging, molecular genetics and computer assisted analysis. Integrative physiology makes it possible to examine the breadth of organism functions including disease mechanisms, sensory and cognitive functions and behavior of the whole organism.

Interest in the health benefits of diet and exercise can be traced to ancient texts, and was of significant concern to Greek physicians such as Galen and Hippocrates. Hippocrates believed the key to healthful living and disease prevention was to find the perfect balance of nutrition and exercise. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the field of integrative physiology began to emerge and document the role of exercise and nutrition in health maintenance, but it wasn’t until the last half of the twentieth century that the role of exercise in disease prevention gained universal recognition. Exercise is now recommended as a way to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, prevent cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, osteoporosis and strokes.

Integrative physiology labs use a multi-faceted, integrative approach to investigate health problems and develop new treatment methods for diseases. Some cardiology labs are using this method to develop gene therapy for heart failure, MRI cardiovascular intervention, improved MRI plaque detection and intravascular imaging of plaque. Advances in reproductive, respiratory, cellular and molecular treatments are also being made using an integrative approach.

Integrative physiology is considered an excellent major for students who wish to pursue graduate education in one of the health sciences. This major is also appropriate for someone who wishes to become a biomechanical scientist, biomedical or biophysics engineer, cardiopulmonary technologist, optometrist, dentist, osteopath, epidemiologist, or other medical positions. Job opportunities for students who do not want to go beyond a bachelor's degree in integrative physiology include fitness trainer, physical therapist, occupational therapist, nutritionist, or any number of opportunities in the fitness and health related fields.

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Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On Jul 05, 2012

@indigomoth - It's also just good practice for anyone who is actually going to work on the ground with people, rather than doing research, to be holistic rather than completely specialized. After all, I feel like more and more doctors are discovering that disease can be caused and aggravated by our lifestyles over time rather than by one event. Learning more about how to create and encourage a healthy lifestyle in people is a very valuable pursuit and one which requires knowledge of a plethora of subjects, from nutrition to physics.

I've actually always wanted to take a physiology course myself, but never found the time.

By indigomoth — On Jul 04, 2012

I think it's always a good idea to have people trained in a field that encourages a diversity of different approaches to a particular problem, rather than focusing on one approach. Science these days is all about specialization, which makes sense because we are so far advanced in our collective knowledge as people that it can take a long time and a lot of commitment to get to the point that you are an expert in a particular subject. If you split your time and commitment with even one other facet of science, you might not reach that level in either area.

But, if you don't also have people who can bridge the gaps between specialties you are going to miss out on the whole point of creating this vast pool of knowledge. Students of integrated physiology will be able to draw together the discoveries and research of other specialists and make something practical from them.

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