Exercise Physiology vs Physiotherapy - What's the Difference?


Tammy George

An exercise physiologist helping an elderly man with exercises on a medicine ball.

Should you call an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist? They both sound similar and some of their services even overlap, but there are differences between the two. Find out how they differ and which appointment you should make.

What is Exercise Physiology?

Exercise physiology is simply an allied health profession that has a focus on the physiology of physical exercise, including how the body responds and adapts to different physical exercises. An exercise physiologist treats injuries and manages chronic conditions to regain or improve function and movement using methods such as:

  • Educating patients about their injury or health condition.

  • Behaviour coaching around exercise & lifestyle changes.

  • Designing tailored exercise plans.

Exercise physiologists use exercise plans to treat clients who suffer from medical conditions and injuries including:

  • Musculoskeletal injuries

  • Chronic pain

  • Heart disease

  • Osteoporosis

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • High Blood Pressure

  • Cancer

  • Arthritis 

  • Neuromuscular disease

Much of an exercise physiologist’s job involves rehabilitation, which is reducing ongoing pain and regaining function after suffering from an injury, illness or surgery.

An exercise physiologist assisting a female client to perform sit ups.

What is Physiotherapy?

Physiotherapy is the treatment of disease, injury, or deformity by physical methods such as:

  • Massage.

  • Heat treatment.

  • Exercise as an alternative to some medications and/or surgery.

Physiotherapists (or physios as they are often referred to in Australia) can treat any condition relating to bones, nerves and joints. They use manual therapies, exercise programs and electrotherapy techniques to treat:

  • Musculoskeletal conditions caused by injuries, pain or arthritis.

  • Neurological conditions such as stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS) and spinal cord injuries.

  • Cardio-thoracic conditions such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

  • Men’s and women’s health physiotherapy-related concerns.

Physiotherapists are also allied health professionals and assist patients with movement disorders that may have been present since birth or have occurred following an injury, life changing event or as a result of ageing.

A physiotherapist conducting a massage on their client’s back to help relieve pain.

Similarities Between Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists

There are a few similarities between physiotherapists and exercise physiologists to be aware of.

Recognised Health Professionals

Both physiotherapists and exercise physiologists are recognised allied health professionals. They are registered providers for Medicare, WorkCover and private health funds. Physiotherapists and exercise physiologists are required to be accredited. Exercise physiologists are accredited with the Exercise and Sports Service Australia (ESSA) professional body. Physiotherapists are accredited through the Australian Physiotherapy Association (APA)

Educating the Patient

Both professions aim to empower the patient through education. By explaining the injury or condition to patients and the steps to recovery, the patient is able to take control of their rehabilitation and understand their expected recovery. 

Claiming Rebates on Physiotherapy & Exercise Physiology 

Physiotherapy and exercise physiology are included on all HIF Extras policies (excluding Vital Options). The only difference between the policies is the benefits and annual limits you can claim. The amount you can claim increases as your level of cover increases.

A physiotherapist assisting her elderly patient to walk in a clinic.

Differences Between Physiotherapists and Exercise Physiologists

There are a few main differences between physiotherapists and exercise physiologists.


Physiotherapists are more likely to assess and provide an injury diagnosis than exercise physiologists who will deliver rehabilitation. Ideally, patients should see a physiotherapist in the early stage of injury when there is pain, swelling and bruising to allow them to assess and recommend treatment. The treatment may be provided by a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist.

Hands-On and Hands-Off Treatment

A physiotherapist provides more ‘hands-on’ treatment, while exercise physiologists provide ‘hands-off’ treatment. Hands-on treatment includes manipulation and massage, while hands-off treatment includes exercise and movement plans.

Physiotherapists often work with patients in the early or acute stage of rehabilitation, while exercise physiologists work with patients in the later stage and long-term rehabilitation. An exercise physiologist may also complete an assessment of a patient’s workplace.

Patients in hospital recovering from a serious injury or surgery for a chronic illness are more likely to work with a physiotherapist than an exercise physiologist. However, as their rehab continues, they may swap to an exercise physiologist. It is common for both professions to work together in multidisciplinary clinics, aged care facilities and large fitness centres, caring for the same patients as their requirements change over time.

A physiotherapist assessing her patient and her range of movement in a clinic.

Exercise-Related Services

Exercise physiologists often work with patients suffering from chronic illness such as cancer, diabetes, lung and heart-related conditions and mental illness. They advise patients on how to use exercise to improve their health and wellness. An exercise physiologist also provides patients with exercise plans to help patients lose and maintain weight. An exercise plan can also help with strength and conditioning to improve fitness. 

Physiotherapists also recommend exercises for patients to do at home, but it’s usually for rehabilitating an injury rather than assisting with a chronic condition or weight loss.

Phases of Injury

The differences between the two professions can be demonstrated by the two main phases of injury. 

Acute Phase

A physiotherapist is more likely to provide care for a patient in the early or acute phase of injury where they can assist with controlling the inflammation of a joint and use manipulation to reduce pain. A physiotherapist will diagnose the injury before recommending manual therapy and any mobility aids if required by the patient.

Soft tissue and joint mobilisation training by a physiotherapist can help a patient recover range of motion in the early stages after an injury, such as an ankle sprain, or surgery. A physio can ensure a patient doesn’t stretch too far or start activity too early, which can slow or reverse the healing process. 

Recovery Phase

An exercise physiologist is more likely to care for patients during their recovery phase. Patients may be provided a treatment plan that involves gentle exercises to regain range of movement, restore joint mobility and strength in the long term.

A patient giving the receptionist at an exercise physiologist clinic her medicare details.

First Appointment with an Exercise Physiologist - What to Expect

At the first appointment with an exercise physiologist, it’s important to provide your therapist with information so they can get to know you. They will ask you about your current health, physical capabilities and exercise history. You may be asked about your health and exercise goals during recovery so that a treatment plan can be written to help you achieve this. Once the treatment plan has been prepared, your exercise physiologist will explain how to complete the exercises including the intensity and frequency.

Your physiologist may give you home-based, clinic-based or gym-based exercises to do. You will gain an understanding of how long to expect the treatment plan to continue to achieve your health goals.

First Appointment with a Physiotherapist - What to Expect

During your first appointment at a physiotherapist, it’s important for you to tell the physio how you were injured, what the pain is like and what activities make it worse or better. Your physiotherapist should be aware of the impact the injury is having on your lifestyle such as the work, hobbies or sport you are no longer able to enjoy. All of this information helps in completing the assessment devising a treatment plan. 

As part of the diagnosis, the physiotherapist may ask you to complete movements or positions that are causing you pain. The physio is then able to do some hands-on treatment with massage or mobilisation techniques to reduce your pain and increase movement. The physio may give you some homework to do. It may be an exercise, modification in the way you sit or sleep, or making a note of when your symptoms flare.

Your physiotherapist will likely finish the appointment with some information on continuing treatment and what to expect in terms of recovery or milestones to recovery.

An exercise physiologist helps their patient to hold and lift dumbbells as part of their treatment.

Making an Appointment with an Exercise Physiologist or Physiotherapist

If you’re unsure whether you should make an appointment with an exercise physiologist or a physiotherapist, consider if the injury is new and undiagnosed. If this is the case, see a physiotherapist. If it’s an existing injury and you’re hoping to regain strength and mobility, an exercise physiologist can assist. Whatever your injury or illness, your GP can help find the right professional for you. If you have a chronic illness, speak to your GP about whether an exercise physiologist may benefit you. 

Now that you know the difference between exercise physiology and physiotherapy, you'll know who to see and when. With select HIF's extras cover, you'll have access to services like exercise physiology and physiotherapy.

Tammy George

Please note: Tammy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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