When exercise physiology runs in the family

Reflecting on 30 years of ESSA sees us reminisce on the growth of exercise physiology in Australia.

Richard Turnbull has been working within the industry, both in Australia and originally South Africa, since the late 80s and has seen how the industry has grown from the early beginnings.

Matthew Turnbull became an Accredited Exercise Physiologist in the late 2000s. He has worked as both an Exercise Physiologist and Physiotherapist within clinics as well as in high-level sports, witnessing how the industry has continued to change.

As you may have noticed by the surnames, Richard and Matthew are one of only a few father and son duos within the ESSA membership, perfectly capturing how ESSA and the industry has grown. In this story, Richard and Matthew share all about their decorated careers, what working with family is really like, and the growth of our industry.

Richard Turnbull

Career journey
I initially went into teaching for two years before completing a double honours degree in Biokinetics and Sports Science and later a Masters in Sports Science. I then joined the mines as Senior Sports Administrator before moving onto the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. While at university (1987) and employed as Senior Sports Administrator, I was allowed, on a part-time basis, to establish a private biokinetic (exercise physiology) practice. I have been in the industry ever since both as an accredited Biokineticist in South Africa and Exercise Physiologist in Australia. The practice in South Africa grew fast, producing successful outcomes and during 1995, I received the National Biokinetics Merit Award for the Advancement of the Biokinetic Practice in South Africa. More recently in 2020, I was awarded an ESSA Fellowship for my commitment to the industry.

I also have a keen interest in coaching and completed a Level 5 Athletic Coaching accreditation and a Level 4 Rugby Union Coaching accreditation both in South Africa and Australia. I have been a biokineticist (exercise physiologist) and strength and conditioning coach for three national sporting teams and one of two national athletic coaches. Over the years, commencing in 1979 to date, I have been very fortunate to have coached many athletes to national and international level; one to a world record.

In 2016, I was inducted into the South African Athletics Coaches Hall of Fame. It was certainly a surprise as I was given the award many years after my best coaching achievements but apparently for some reason my name resurfaced, and I had met all the criteria. I do feel very honoured.

Four generations, 2013
(L-R) John Turnbull (Matt’s eldest son), Matt Turnbull, Richard Turnbull, Charlie Turnbull (Richard’s father)

Richard Turnbull with Matthew Temane, 1987
Opening Body Dynamics Health Australia
I initially opened an exercise physiology practice, Body Dynamics, in Orange, NSW during June 1997 against the advice of many local friends and colleagues as the profession was unknown. Fortunately, I identified “gatekeepers”, the first was an industrial nurse at Email (later Electrolux) who referred injured workers, and with hard work and successful outcomes the business grew quickly with referrals from a few local medical doctors and gradually became very successful.

Matthew, my son, then took over the business in 2010 and I continued working for him as an employed Exercise Physiologist and continue to do so. It has and continues to be a wonderful journey working with Matthew. His experience and multiple qualifications in the field of rehabilitation (both as an AEP and physiotherapist) and high-level sport performance has allowed the business to grow to the next level.

Working alongside his son
Matthew was a successful applicant for the Australian Institute of Sport’s post graduate scholarship during 2012, then worked and toured with various national sports organisations including Hockey Australia, U21 Australian Netball Team as well as attending the World University Games in South Korea as a member of the medical team. During the past 6 years, Matthew has worked full-time in the AFL with the North Melbourne Football Club in the roles of Head Physiotherapist and Head of High Performance. With the COVID pandemic and his important decision to spend more quality time with his family, he has returned back home to manage his practice and also complete a PhD in performance health.

We get on remarkably well together. He has always remained humble, which makes me proud and has very good customer service skills and gets on exceptionally well with everyone.

It is honestly a fantastic feeling to be able to share the experiences with him. I think he is more passionate and knowledgeable than I am. I learn a lot from him. Maybe he learns a little from me!
Some of the biggest challenges after 40 years in the industry
The initial major barrier to overcome was the general negative perception the medical and other health professionals had of the exercise physiology profession. It took many years for the profession to be fully accepted within the medical and allied health professions. If you look at how small ESSA was during the early days (the same happened in South Africa) compared to the professional outfit it has now become, many of the barriers have been overcome.

Also, in my first 16 years in the profession (both in South Africa and Australia), I worked very long hours, averaging between 12 and 16 hours a day, six days a week. To gain recognition and positive outcomes that is what it took to become successful; one had to always be on the hunt for those gatekeepers who would be willing to refer clients and then to make sure that the outcomes were good.

The growth of the industry
When I started my private practice, neither Medicare nor private health insurance companies accepted Exercise Physiologists as legitimate members of the allied health community, so no referrals were forthcoming from the medical fraternity. All of my clients had to pay privately for the services I provided. What excites me the most is the rate of growth of exercise physiology which has evolved into a fully accepted profession within the allied health industry. Credit to ESSA for continuing negotiations with various gatekeepers ensuring that Exercise Physiologists remain the preferred providers of exercise within the health industry. Graduates are now able to find work within private practice, hospitals, elite professional sport, mining, large corporate companies, and many other areas.

I have been an unbroken accredited member with ESSA (originally AAESS) since 1996. During 2000-2001, I served as Vice President on the then AAESS National Board when Dr Phil Hamdorf was President. It is very satisfying to see how the profession has grown and been accepted since that time.

Springbok Tour to Australia, 1993
(Richard Turnbull bottom right)

Springbok Tour to Australia, 1993
(Richard Turnbull on the right)

Matt Turnbull with Ben Brown (top) and Jack Ziebell (bottom), North Melbourne AFL

Matthew Turnbull

Like father like son
My dad was probably the biggest influence as to why I went down the path of exercise and sports science. He always encouraged us (my sisters Christin, Lauren and I) to go into whatever profession or direction we wanted. But for me, dad has always been my hero. We have always been a close unit and as a young child I would get to go to work with dad after school or on the weekends. This ranged from Dad’s (and Mom’s) biokinetic clinic and commercial gym, the sports union and the rugby or athletics track watching dad coach. I recall being so proud to see my dad on the sideline when the Springboks played and remember being glued to the TV to hear updates when he was on tour to Australia or Argentina.

But I really knew that I wanted to get into exercise rehabilitation and prevention having spent the last few years of school actually helping in the family practice. When dad opened the exercise physiology clinic in Orange, I got to see how his exercise intervention would impact so positively on clients who had otherwise failed to improve with passive therapy. I had the benefit of insight into pathology and exercise prescription from chronic patients to sub-elite athletes from the age of 16. I guess the path was paved for me in a way and I will always be grateful.

Working within the family business
I am sure many people out there that work in family businesses would agree that it can be challenging at times, but I have been fortunate to have a great relationship with dad and we work well together. I also couldn’t have done it without dad. The early days were tough in Wagga Wagga where existing physiotherapy practices had been in place for a few years. Being a little inexperienced at the time, I recall times where I felt like giving up because we just were not getting enough people through the door. Dad moved down to Wagga temporarily to help out and together we started getting involved with local sport. Dad coached and I worked as the physiotherapist for the local rugby clubs. This allowed for word-of-mouth and after a slow 12 months, things started to fall into place. The clinic continued to succeed even in my absence while I was working full time in sport, however, now I am full-time at Body Dynamics. Our current physiotherapy and exercise physiology staff continue to work together alongside the models that dad and I set up.
Positive changes in the industry
The most positive change appears to be the greater acceptance, recognition and understanding of the exercise physiology profession in Australia. There have been more and more dual practices emerging and it’s great to see what physiotherapists and exercise physiologists can achieve for their clients when they work together. I believe the optimal practice is one that works in a similar way to that of a high performance team in professional sport. Performance is optimised when decisions are shared and there is good communication between members of the medical and sports science team. If a patient/client in the clinic has access to an exercise physiologist, physiotherapist, dietician and GP that share decisions and can work well together, that person will achieve better outcomes.

"What I’ve learnt from my dad"
  1. Your health and your family are the most important assets together with good healthy relationships.
  2. The body finds a way to adapt to training load, it’s the rate of how you load it and recover that gets you there.
  3. In order to make something work, you have to work hard and be willing to get out of your comfort zone to make things happen.
  4. Pursue something you are genuinely passionate about.
  5. Invest in your athletes and patients in order to get them the best results possible.

Thank you to Richard and Matthew Turnbull for sharing their stories with us.

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Matthew with the Australian 21U Netball Team, 2012

Matthew with the Australian Gillaroos in Argentina, 2015

Supporting health through exercise for 30 years 

To celebrate 30 years of Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA), we are reflecting on 30 stories which commemorate the profound impact the exercise and sports science industry and its professionals have had on our communities, and how they have benefited the health landscape in Australia.

Click here to read more like this one