Exercise physiologists (EPs), physiotherapists (physios), and personal trainers (PTs) are all professionals who can help you to move better and improve your fitness. Each type of professional brings a different type of expertise, and in fact all three can work together to deliver optimal care. But when you have a specific concern, it can be difficult to figure out who can best help you to meet your goals. Continue reading to find out who does what, and when to book an appointment.
Education and Training
University education is required to become an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist – both professions require completion of at least a four-year bachelor’s degree that has been accredited by the relevant agency. Both physiotherapy and exercise physiology degrees involve a high level of understanding of human anatomy, physiology, pathophysiology, and movement, as well as many hundreds of hours of clinical placement.
In comparison, university education is not required to become a personal trainer. While some PTs may have a three-year bachelor’s degree in exercise science or human movement, the minimum requirement to register and work as a personal trainer is a Certificate IV in Fitness. The lower barrier to entry does contribute to some of the negative stereotypical personal training experiences, however the vast majority of PTs are knowledgeable and passionate about helping people to get fit.
All three professions require a commitment to continued learning. For EPs and physios, this may involve reading scientific journals, attending conferences, or taking courses to learn new ways to assess and treat various conditions. Continued education for PTs typically involves attending courses or workshops to learn new exercise methods (such as Pilates, boxing, or kettlebells), or specialise in training specific populations (such as kids, older adults, athletes, or pre/post-natal).
Scope of Practice
So now we know what’s involved in becoming a physio, EP, or PT – but what do they actually do?
Physiotherapists use a variety of treatment modalities to help people improve their mobility and recover from pain, injury, or illness. This can include hands-on treatments such as massage, joint mobilisation and dry needling, usage of bracing and taping, or prescription of specific exercises to regain strength and mobility. Physiotherapists can also diagnose musculoskeletal injuries and conditions, unlike EPs.
Exercise physiologists prescribe exercise to help prevent, manage, and treat chronic diseases. Unlike physiotherapy, exercise physiology treatment is mostly hands-off, consisting predominantly of exercise assessment and delivery. While EPs can prescribe specific exercises to manage musculoskeletal pain or injury, they also design exercise programs to improve full-body strength, cardiovascular fitness, balance, coordination, and mobility. EPs also help to identify and remove barriers to participating in exercise, educating and counselling their clients to build confidence in their ability to stay active in the long term.
Personal trainers deliver individualised exercise programs to people who are “apparently healthy” or have been cleared by a doctor, physio, or exercise physiologist to work with a personal trainer. PTs help clients to meet goals including general fitness, muscle gain, fat loss, and sports performance, utilising a wide variety of exercises and coaching techniques to keep each PT session interesting and effective.
When to See an Exercise Physiologist
We’ve written an entire blog post about who should see an exercise physiologist, but in general you should see an EP if you want to prevent or manage chronic disease, or are unsure how to exercise safely and effectively based on your lifestyle and medical history. After understanding your goals and assessing your health and fitness, an EP can write you a home exercise program and help you to devise strategies to increase your level of physical activity, or see you regularly for supervised exercise sessions.
When to See a Physiotherapist
You should see a physiotherapist if you are experiencing pain or weakness, or having trouble moving around due to injury, surgery, age, or a medical condition. A physio will ask questions to understand your symptoms, assess your movement, and review medical or radiological reports to determine a treatment plan. A typical treatment plan may involve frequent appointments during the early stages of healing, tapering off as you regain movement and strength.
When to See a Personal Trainer
You might want to work with a personal trainer if you find it difficult to motivate yourself to exercise, don’t know how to exercise or use gym equipment, or have a specific physique or performance goal but are otherwise healthy. Based on your goals, availability, and budget, you might work with a personal trainer once or more per week either indefinitely or for a specific amount of time.
How EPs, Physios, and PTs Can Work Together
All three professions can play an important role in keeping you active and healthy and can work together to optimise your outcomes. Generally, a physiotherapist should be your first port of call following injury or surgery, or if you are experiencing musculoskeletal pain (particularly if the cause is yet to be determined). They can work with you in the early stages of healing to manage pain and improve mobility, as well as in later stages to help you return to your desired activities. As you recover, your physio might refer you to an EP for exercise prescription to help you build the strength, cardiovascular fitness, mobility, and balance needed to return to work, sport, or everyday life. If you see an EP for chronic disease management, they may refer you to a physio if you have, or develop, a complex condition or injury involving your muscles, nerves, bones, or joints which they believe requires treatment other than exercise. Gaining the additional perspective of a physiotherapist assessment can also help to guide your exercise physiologist’s exercise prescription.
If you are regularly seeing a personal trainer but become injured or receive a new diagnosis, a physio or EP can assess you and advise your trainer how they can proceed with helping you to exercise around your injury or illness if possible, or if you should take a break from exercising for a certain amount of time to recover. A personal trainer may also refer a new client to an EP or physio before training them if the PT believes the client needs clearance to exercise. As PTs often see clients multiple times a week, they can ensure you stay active in the long term once physio or EP treatment is no longer necessary.
Acacia Well-Being has both physiotherapy and exercise physiology services on offer, helping you to stay healthy and active no matter what life throws at you. If you think you’d benefit from seeing an EP, physio, or both, you can book an appointment online now, or call 1300 800 993 for more information.