By Published On: October 3, 2022

For those interested in an exercise science career who want to work directly to improve their clients health and well-being, both exercise physiology and physical therapy are excellent career options to consider. While exercise physiologists and physical therapists both work hands on with clients to improve physical conditions, there are several key differences between the two careers.

Definitions: Exercise Physiologist vs. Physical Therapist

What Is an Exercise Physiologist?

Exercise physiologists develop exercise programs to assist patients in improving chronic conditions and improve patient health. They run fitness and stress tests and design fitness plans for either preventative care or injury recovery. Many work closely with different physicians in hospital or allied healthcare settings, while some work in their own private practice.

What Is a Physical Therapist?

Physical therapists work with clients to diagnose and help physical conditions using hands on care and exercise prescription. They work to improve quality of life for clients, focusing on pain reduction and mobility, and track their clients progress over time. Physical therapists work on healthcare teams, typically in hospital or clinic settings.

Similarities Between Exercise Physiologists and Physical Therapists

Exercise physiologists and physical therapists both work in healthcare settings with patients to improve health conditions in their clients. In both careers, professionals will work to develop fitness plans, often as part of rehabilitation measures. Exercise physiologists and physical therapists study similar areas of kinesiology, biomechanics, and exercise science, although physical therapists receive a more in-depth education.

Differences Between Exercise Physiologists and Physical Therapists

The biggest difference between exercise physiologists and physical therapists is the education and training required for the career. Exercise physiologists need at minimum a bachelor’s degree, but often a master’s degree in exercise science, exercise physiology, kinesiology, or a related field. Many also seek certification, such as that through the American College of Sports Medicine. Physical therapists have a more intensive educational path, needing an undergraduate degree in exercise science or related field and to complete a Doctor in Physical Therapy (DPT) program. On top of this, physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination and obtain state licensure prior to starting their practice.

Additionally, exercise physiologists tend to work with those who have chronic diseases, with a focus on improving cardiovascular health and body composition, while physical therapists tend to have a focus on rehabilitation from injury and preventative care in addition to those with chronic illness. Their work seeks to improve mobility and pain reduction in clients.

Another difference between the two careers is the earning potential. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for exercise physiologists is $47,940, with exercise physiologists working in government positions earning a median salary of $81,890. Physical therapists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, earn a median salary of $95,620, with those working in home healthcare services earning a median salary of $99,800.

Get Started on Your Exercise Science Career

For both exercise physiology and physical therapy careers, the first step is earning an education. Concordia University Chicago offers a 100% Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology program, so you can take the first step towards your career while balancing work and your personal life. For those interested in exercise physiology, the Master’s in Applied Exercise Science, Exercise Physiology concentration provides students with a strong foundation in exercise physiology, for those with or without a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.

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