Physios and Exercise Physiologists: The similarities, differences, and how they can help you in collaboration

Here at Medicine in Motion, we hear the question “What’s the difference between a Physiotherapist and an Exercise Physiologist” quite a lot. 

Often followed by “who should I be seeing for my situation, an Exercise Physiologist or a Physiotherapist?”.

So, we’ve decided to bridge the gap and give some insight into the similarities, differences, and how both professions working together are able to provide the best treatment outcomes for patients.


Similarities between a Physiotherapist and Exercise Physiologist

The major contributing factor as to why there is a lot of confusion amongst the two professions is that there is a lot of crossover and overlapping between them. 

  • Both work with similar clientele, seeing patients with injuries, chronic diseases, pain, and a range of other pathologies and disabilities.
  • Both are recognised by Medicare, NDIS, Workcover, DVA, and private health funds.
  • Physiotherapists and exercise physiologists are both university qualified, with a minimum 4-year degree, in some cases even longer, as well as hundreds of hours of practical placement before they can become fully accredited.
  • Both have governing bodies in the Australian Physiotherapy Association and Exercise & Sports Science Australia.
  • Each profession is evidence-based and are required to stay up-to-date with the latest research through further education each year, known as continued professional development (CPD).


Differences between a Physiotherapist and Exercise Physiologist

A Physiotherapist works to treat disease and injury by firstly diagnosing through a physical assessment and then providing a prognosis and treatment plan.  Treatment is usually through physical methods such as manual therapy, massage, dry needling, electrotherapy modalities and exercise prescription. Physiotherapists often work in acute phases of injury, however are not limited to this stage of treatment alone.

An Exercise Physiologist specialises typically in sub-acute or chronic injury and illness.  Exercise Physiologists primarily treat patients using clinical exercise interventions as their main modality, with a strong focus on education, behavioural/lifestyle changes, and strategies to self-manage in the future.

The major differences between the two professions are that Physiotherapists are able to diagnose and use hands on treatment whilst implementing a specific exercise prescription. Whereas an Exercise Physiologist usually has a diagnosis at the start of treatment, and largely uses structured exercise catered to the individual’s needs and goals, to improve function and reduce the likelihood of injury recurrence. Furthermore, they work with patients to make lifestyle changes and minimise the risk of developing future adverse health conditions.

Why both professions working collaboratively can provide the best outcomes for patients

In rehabilitation there are different stages we go through during an injury:

Acute Stage

This is immediately after your injury has occurred, where inflammation, swelling, bruising and pain may be present. This phase is best suited to a Physiotherapist, who is able to diagnose the injury, provide hands on treatment, assist in controlling inflammation and pain, as well as providing any physical aids you might need in the short term such as slings, braces, splints and mobility devices.


Sub-acute/Recovery Stage

Progressing into this phase of rehab can be highly variable and can take a few weeks, to a few months, depending upon the severity of your injury. This is where an Exercise Physiologist could become involved in your recovery process. An Exercise Physiologist or Physiotherapist may begin gentle exercise with you including mobility and strengthening exercises targeting the affected area. This is then progressed as needed to increase range of motion and strength over time as well as assisting in the reduction of pain symptoms.


Return to Activity/Injury Prevention Stage

This is the final stage in the rehabilitation from injury process. It focuses on returning you to the activities you enjoy and works on reducing the likelihood of a similar injury occurring again. An Exercise Physiologist may provide activity specific exercises, education on technique, movement analysis and corrections, whilst also giving you self-management strategies for the future.

It is important to note that it is common to be seeing both professions simultaneously. For example, you might be receiving manual therapy from a Physiotherapist whilst also seeing an Exercise Physiologist for regular exercise sessions. The reason why this is implemented and the advantage of this is that it covers all bases of rehab as far as managing pain, educating the patient, increasing range of motion and strengthening the injured area. A rehabilitation program incorporating two similar but unique professions reduces the chance of something not being picked up along the way and is by far the fastest route to a full recovery.


Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists both have similar but distinctive roles in the rehab process. The two professions working together collaboratively provides the best possible care to an individual. This is why at Medicine in Motion we have a team of experienced Exercise Physiologists and Physiotherapists in our clinics.


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