Difference between a Physical, Occupational and Exercise Therapist

Physical, occupational or exercise therapist? We explain the role of each professional and how they can help you.

5 minute read

Have you incurred an injury, sprain or strain? Has your doctor told you that your overall health isn’t optimal? Is it time to make a lifestyle change? When these issues come up it can be daunting to figure out who to trust for help. With the vast options of therapists, how do you know which one is right for you? If you aren’t sure whether a Physical Therapist, Occupational Therapist, or Exercise Therapist is the right fit for you then you aren’t alone. Being inundated with information, advertisements, and people professing to be professionals can be confusing. Let’s break it down!

Physical Therapist (PT)

What We Do!

A physical therapist has a masters degree and have undergone numerous courses in pathology, anatomy, biomechanics, and physiology. Supervised clinical practice is part of their entry to practice program. A physical therapist is client-focused and dedicated to improving optimal joint , muscle and nervous system health. They do this through rehabilitation programs and increased physical activity. They treat/prevent conditions, injuries and disability right through the full spectrum of ages, from the elderly who are vulnerable to slip and falls and to athletes who have extremely active lifestyles.

A physical therapist doesn’t just treat and prevent injuries.They also implement lifestyle modification programs to manage chronic disease. A PT helps you to achieve optimal wellness and increased functional independence.

How Can a Physical Therapist Help?

What exactly does PT do to help you? A physical therapist will work with you in a clinic, home, or hospital through treatment planning and patient education.

I Have an Injury, Sprain or Strain!

In the event of injury, sprain, strain or low back pain a PT will assess, diagnose and then design a rehabilitation program to treat your injury. This usually combines exercise, manual manipulation therapies, physical modalities and in some cases dry needling or acupuncture. A PT can effectively reduce acute and chronic pain while working directly with the muscles and tissues that have been injured.

Aging: General Aches & Pains

Do you have recurring aches and pains? Limited range of motion? Decreased mobility? A PT can assess your physical limitations/pain and help improve your quality of life through reconditioning. They also help prevent potential injuries. For example, a physical therapist works with aging populations to help increase balance, improve posture, maintain muscle mass, and encourage an active lifestyle which decreases the chances of a slip and fall or the onset of chronic diseases like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis.

Post Surgery Rehabilitation

Although surgery is corrective, it is also interpreted by the body as a major injury. After being protected for a period of time, surgical areas need to rehabilitated to get their maximal benefit from the surgery. Physical therapists understand the surgery and the rehabilitation needs.

Pelvic Health: Women, Men and Children

The pelvis and all of its special organs, muscles and joints run into many problems. Optimizing function assists with such conditions as bowel and bladder continence and pelvic pain. Physical therapists have special training in this area.

Conditions of the Nervous System

Diseases such as Stroke, Head Injury, Cord Injury, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease can have devastating consequences on function. Optimizing the function of the nervous system in the presence of these diseases is possible. Physical therapists have extensive training in neurological disease management.

Conditions of the Spine

The spine is the core of our body and degenerative diseases of aging and the effects of injury all take their toll. Special knowledge of the spine and rehabilitation strategies are of special interest to physical therapists.

At Risk of Chronic Disease?

You will be surprised to find all the areas in which physical therapists are trained to help clients achieve optimal health and reduce the risk of illness and chronic disease. These areas include:

  • Cardiovascular Rehabilitation to prevent cardiac disease
  • Management and prevention of chronic disease (hypertension, type 2 diabetes, emphysema, arthritis)
  • Chronic lung disease (programs to reduce pain and symptoms)
  • Senior risk of injury (prevention through home physical therapy care)
  • Improves musculoskeletal conditions

Occupational Therapist (OT)

What We Do!

An occupational therapist works with clients who have endured mental, emotional, or physical trauma . They have a master’s degree. While a physical therapist treats your injury, an occupational therapist helps you live and function with your injury or impairment on a day-to-day basis so you can get on with the “occupation” of living your life, both activities of daily living and work. They help you optimize your ability to achieve independence while injured, physically impaired, or sick. An OT helps patients accomplish daily skills like hygiene, dressing, and self-feeding or many complex work activities such as lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying. They provide ergonomic advice for both home and work environments.

Occupational Therapists typically work with the following types of clients while also educating family and friends about their condition:

  • Elderly
  • Cardiac patients
  • Stroke patients
  • Orthopaedic patients
  • Neurological patients
  • Special needs children
  • Insurance patients who are off work

How Can an Occupational Therapist Help?


An OT does a slightly different type of rehabilitation than physical therapists. They are trained to identify deficits and assist patients to re-learn daily functional tasks such as eating, swallowing, grooming, driving, balance/stability and walking. They often work in industrial rehabilitation centers that rehabilitate injured workers for compensation boards and those injured in car accidents.

Assessment of your home & work

If you have sustained an injury or physical impairment an occupational therapist will come in and do an ergonomic assessment of your home and work to see how they can modify your environment to maximize your daily function.

Working with Assistive Devices

An occupational therapist will educate and instruct the patient on how to use assistive equipment to help advance daily function.

Exercise Therapist

What We Do!

Also know as an exercise physiologist, an exercise therapist has a kinesiology degree meaning they have studied anatomy and exercise sciences. Often an exercise therapist will work with you to carry out the physical therapist’s program. They also communicate with the physical therapist to give them updates on your injury and improvements.

How Can an Exercise Physiologist Help?

Think of an exercise therapist as your personal cheerleader and goal implementer with knowledge and expertise. They take the physical therapist’s rehab goals and keeps you on track! An exercise therapist works with you on a daily basis to complete your exercises, stretching, and strengthening. They ensure you are performing the prescribed exercises and stretches correctly.

Complimenting Therapies! How It All Fits Together

Physical therapy, occupational therapy, and exercise therapy are all disciplines that work together to compliment each other. The type of therapist you need depends on the level of injury or impairment you sustained. The health goals you are working towards can also determine the type of therapist you need.

To put it in perspective: A physical therapist works with the patient to rehabilitate the injury (improve movement, range-of-motion, and strength while decreasing pain).

If you sustained a more debilitating injury, an occupational therapist will assess your environment to help you adapt to daily living and cope with the injury. After (or during) your rehabilitation with the physical therapist, an occupational therapist retrains you to use the rehabilitated body part to perform activities of daily living thereby increasing your independence and function.

Exercise Physiologists work with the physical and occupational therapists to optimize through supervised exercise.

How to Find a Certified Therapist

Regardless of which therapist you need, a trained professional can be beneficial to getting you back to feeling your best. Always ensure that your therapist has a university degree in their specialty and that they are certified by their regulatory body .

Bourassa & Associates is proud to offer 30 years of excellence in physical therapy and employs university trained therapists who are ready to work with you. You can book your appointment same day with no doctors referral needed. Find a clinic to book an assessment and let us help you get back to doing the things you enjoy!

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