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Exercise Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Exercise Therapy vs Physical Therapy: What’s the Difference?

Reading Time: 5 minutes


DATE: 2024-06-25

In a perfect world, no one would ever get sick or injured. Yet, the reality is that both are common occurrences. Therapeutic exercise can often help. Exercise therapy and physical therapy are two options. While there are similarities between them, there are also differences.

What Exercise Therapy Is

Exercise therapy involves creating individualized exercise programs for clients. Often, these clients have a chronic condition. They may have diabetes, heart disease, or chronic pain. Exercise therapy can help them manage their symptoms. Each exercise program is based on the client’s specific health conditions. It also considers their physical abilities.

Sometimes the client is recovering from a sports injury. For clients with an injury, exercise serves as rehabilitation therapy. It assists with recovery in several ways. Aerobic exercise increases blood flow. This gets more oxygen (and nutrients) to the injured area. 

Another benefit of exercise therapy is pain relief. Injury to the rotator cuff can lead to shoulder pain. Injury to the lower leg can lead to foot or ankle pain. Pain creates discomfort. It also makes it harder to perform normal daily activities. Research supports exercise therapy for reducing pain. For instance, in one study, it reduced knee pain in athletes.(1)

Exercise therapy can also be preventative. Research indicates that it can help prevent type 2 diabetes. (2) Other studies have shown that it can reduce a person’s injury risk. (3)

Defining Physical Therapy

The American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) shares that physical therapy is multifaceted. It can improve movement and physical function in people who are injured. It also aids in chronic condition and pain management. (4)

The APTA adds that physical therapy even plays a role in disease and injury prevention. Other national organizations echo this sentiment. One is the Academy of Orthopaedic Physical Therapy. Another is the American Academy of Sports Physical Therapy. They worked together to provide guidelines for knee injury prevention

In some countries, physical therapy is called physiotherapy. A physical therapist and physiotherapist perform the same type of duties. They just have different job titles. 

Exercise Therapy vs Physical Therapy: 3 Key Differences

With so many similarities, it’s easy to confuse these two therapy types. Both use exercise as therapy. Both also improve physical fitness. So, how are they different?

Different Scopes of Practice

An exercise therapist can work with clients who have a disease. They also work with those who have an injury. But they cannot diagnose the client’s condition. Nor can they prescribe a treatment plan. Instead, they can devise an exercise program that:

  • Doesn’t worsen the client’s condition,

  • Supports recovery or management, and

  • Is safe to perform.

A physical therapist has a more expanded scope of practice. The APTA provides this scope. It says that a physical therapist can both diagnose and treat. The therapist is only limited by their training. If they’ve learned how to perform a technique, they can use it in therapy. (5)

That said, the therapist does have to remain within certain guidelines. Each state requires that a physical therapist have their license. Guidelines for practice are part of keeping this license. 

Different Goals

Exercise therapy and physical therapy also have different goals. The goal of exercise therapy is to help improve or maintain fitness. This requires considering a client’s condition. The therapist work must within the client’s limitations. But the ultimate goal is fitness.

The main goal of physical therapy is rehabilitation. Physical therapy treatment often occurs after illness or injury. It helps the patient recover faster and better. Exercise assists by promoting healthy movement. Specific exercises can also improve physical function.

Recap: Exercise therapy focuses on optimal fitness for a client’s condition. Physical therapy focuses on rehabilitation through movement.

Different Training Requirements

Each therapist must understand exercise physiology. They need to know what form of physical activity is good for certain conditions or injuries. They also need to know which exercises to avoid. But the level of their training is very different.

You can become an exercise therapy specialist in a few months. You aren’t diagnosing or treating clients. So, a shorter course can provide the information needed to work in this role. In this course, you learn about:

  • Exercise’s prevention and rehabilitation benefits

  • Therapeutic exercise program basics

  • Common physical conditions and how they affect a person

  • Exercise program design 

  • How to teach exercise to clients with chronic conditions or injuries

  • Ways to adapt movements based on a client’s limitations

  • Types of exercise to avoid for certain conditions

  • How to use exercise to boost clients’ mental health

To work as a physical therapist, you need more schooling. You must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree. This degree program generally takes three years to complete. It includes both classroom and lab learning. Students also engage in clinical experiences.

Other Professionals Offering Therapeutic Exercise

Exercise and physical therapy aren’t the only options available. A client or patient may also work with a(n):

  • Occupational therapist. Occupational therapy helps patients with activities of daily living. These include things such as bathing, eating, or dressing. Some specialize in different areas. Occupational therapy specialties include working with people with autism or brain injuries. Or the therapist might only work with patients requiring assistive technology.

  • Exercise physiologist. This therapist works with people with chronic diseases. They consider a client’s medical history and develop an exercise plan. You need a bachelor's degree to work as an exercise physiologist. Some states also require that you get a license.

  • Corrective exercise specialist. Corrective exercise involves fixing faulty movement patterns. It also corrects musculoskeletal dysfunctions and imbalances. When these issues aren’t fixed, pain is often the result. So, corrective exercise can help prevent pain. And if pain is already present, it can help relieve it.

  • Sports medicine doctor. An injured athlete may seek the help of a sports medicine professional. Recovery generally involves some sort of modified exercise plan. Although, it may also need surgery. This type of therapist can develop and deliver a more advanced treatment plan.

How Do You Determine Which Form of Physical Rehabilitation Is Best?

You or your client has a health condition or injury. How do you know which professional can help? If the goal of exercise therapy is treatment, a physical therapist is best. They can create a complete rehab program. Their goal is to maximize recovery.

Maybe the goal is to stay as active as possible while recovering or managing a chronic illness. In this case, an exercise therapist can help. They understand which forms of exercise are best for major medical conditions. They also know which ones to avoid to keep from worsening the issue.

The main thing to remember if working in either role is to stay within your scope of practice. Don’t provide services you’re not trained to provide. And if you have a license, don’t go outside of it. Help the client or patient to the best of your ability, within your guidelines. If they need more help, refer them to the appropriate care provider.

Become an Exercise Therapy Specialst

Does exercise therapy sound like a good career for you? ISSA offers the training needed to work in this role. Our Exercise Therapist certification course includes comprehensive instruction. You also gain access to an online exercise lab and more. Enroll today and start working toward a career in exercise therapy today!

Featured Course

ISSA | Exercise Therapist

According to the American Sports Data Company Inc., numerous employment opportunities are opening up in facilities for health & fitness professionals who have an expertise in Post-Rehab exercise. Nearly 1,000 hospitals in the US alone have already opened fitness facilities and hundreds more are in various stages of development. The broad goal of this certificate program is to train students for an entry-level position in Exercise Therapy through distance education.


  1. Rasti, E., Rojhani-Shirazi, Z., Ebrahimi, N., & Sobhan, M. R. (2020). Effects of whole body vibration with exercise therapy versus exercise therapy alone on flexibility, vertical jump height, agility and pain in athletes with patellofemoral pain: a randomized clinical trial. BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders, 21(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12891-020-03732-1

  2. Yang, D., Yang, Y., Li, Y., & Han, R. (2019). Physical exercise as therapy for Type 2 diabetes mellitus: From mechanism to orientation. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 74(4), 313–321. https://doi.org/10.1159/000500110

  3. Luan, X., Tian, X., Zhang, H., Huang, R., Li, N., Chen, P., & Wang, R. (2019). Exercise as a prescription for patients with various diseases. Journal of Sport and Health Science/Journal of Sport and Health Science, 8(5), 422–441. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2019.04.002

  4. Becoming a Physical Therapist. (n.d.). APTA. https://www.apta.org/your-career/careers-in-physical-therapy/becoming-a-pt

  5. Physical Therapist’s Scope of Practice. (2017, September 13). APTA. https://www.apta.org/apta-and-you/leadership-and-governance/policies/position-scope-of-practice

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