Physiology provides an explanation of life, and everyone—not just doctors and scientists—would benefit from understanding some essential physiological concepts. But to learn how physiology applies to everyday life, you must first understand what it is.
Physiology is the study of how living organisms function in sickness and in health. Physiologists study functions that may take place on a small scale, such as in molecules or individual cells, or in whole animals such as humans. Physiological research has led to breakthroughs in our understanding of how we move, reproduce, gain and lose weight, live, thrive, die and much more. Because of this, a strong grasp of physiology is imperative for doctors and other health care providers who see patients and treat disease.
But it’s also important for the average person to have an understanding of physiology. It can help patients understand why their doctor recommends that they work out, eat less salt or take a certain medicine. Physiology can also inform our everyday decisions related to diet, exercise and sleep.
Integrative physiologists, like me, study how the body responds to stimuli such as exercise. Some examples of the type of functions we study include:
- How oxygen supports metabolism, how its use determines how many calories we “burn” at rest and during exercise and how it can help determine a person’s cardiorespiratory fitness level.
- How the body controls blood pressure, what happens to blood pressure when we exercise, and what can be done to lower blood pressure and prevent it from getting too high.
- The critical role of sodium (salt) in regulating fluid levels in the body and how it can raise blood pressure and damage tissues when too much is consumed.
- The importance of blood flow regulation in delivering nutrients and oxygen to the working muscles at rest and during exercise, which is critical for athletes and for slowing down age-related declines in physical function.
Key physiology concepts provide the framework for addressing these issues, and there is still so much to learn and explore!
To quote one of physiology’s forefathers, Arthur C. Guyton, “Physiology is indeed an explanation of life. What other subject matter is more fascinating, more exciting, more beautiful than the subject of life?” I agree (though I may be biased). But whether you’re intrigued by physiology or not, the insights into health and disease that it uncovers hold a benefit for us all.
William B. Farquhar, PhD, is a professor and chair in the department of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Delaware. He is a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and member of the American Physiological Society.