Personal fitness trainers design exercise programs and help their clients execute them to maintain or improve health, while physical therapists diagnose, treat and manage pain, injuries and diseases. Fitness trainers often encounter clients with existing difficulties, such as severe back pain and diabetes, and plan activities that blur the line between fitness and medicine. When a problem is beyond their expertise, trainers must refer clients to a proper rehabilitation professional, such as a physical therapist.
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Therapist Education and Qualifications
Physical therapists must have at least a master's degree in physical therapy, kinesiology, sports medicine or a similar field. If your bachelor's degree is not exercise related, you need to complete prerequisites as mandated by a university before applying for the physical therapy program. Physical therapists must also be licensed by the state they practice in, pass the National Physical Therapy Examination and fulfill state requirements such as jurisprudence exams, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They must also take continuing education courses to keep their practice updated to maintain their license.
Trainer Education and Qualifications
The profession of personal training does not have an educational standard and is self-regulated. Trainers can have a master's degree in biomechanics with five years of experience working at a clinical and athletic setting, or simply a weekend certification with no experience. However, personal trainers should have a minimum of a bachelor's degree in exercise science or a related field as well as an accredited certification that extends their academic knowledge, such as PTA Global or the National Academy of Sports Medicine. They should also be CPR and first-aid certified.
Scope of Practice
Physical therapists diagnose, treat and rehabilitate patients who have an injury or disease that limits their movement. Their job is to help patients move independently, alleviate pain and prevent disability. They often work with patients with joint and muscle pain, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, cerebral palsy, stroke, spina bifida and post-surgical conditions.
Besides designing exercise programs, personal trainers also coach clients to a healthier and more active lifestyle, help prevent injuries and help clients follow through with their physician's or physical therapist's advice. They also screen movement patterns to ensure that clients can move well without pain or severe limitations. Trainers may not recommend diets or supplements, unless they are registered dietitians.
A personal trainer may perform the work of a physical therapist only if he is a licensed physical therapists also. This hybrid professional may work with a patient with back pain and a high school football player who wishes to gain muscle size and speed.
Some personal training certification agencies provide a clinical exercise certification for trainers who have little or no experience or qualifications in the rehabilitation field. When in doubt, choose a physical therapist over a personal trainer for rehabilitation services.