How to Become an Exercise Therapist

What is an Exercise Therapist?

Exercise therapists focus their attention on helping their clients regain normal physical functioning after suffering an injury or during recovery from a disease. Likewise, exercise therapists work with individuals that are dealing with some sort of physiological pain on developing a regimen of exercises to minimize that pain.

Unlike traditional therapists that delve into the psychological realms of distress, exercise therapists focus instead on the physical experience. As a result, exercise therapists are typically found working in hospitals, clinics, physical therapist offices, and so forth, as part of a larger team of specialists.

For example, an exercise therapist might work with a physical therapist to develop a program of recovery for a person that’s been injured in a car accident. This might involve anything from learning to walk with crutches to relearning how to walk altogether, depending on the severity of the patient’s injuries. The program of recovery that’s developed is highly specific to meet the client’s individual needs.

Regardless of their client’s needs, an exercise therapist’s primary function is to help patients to have increased independence, improved sensory function, better mobility, reduced pain, and an overall improved quality. That’s achieved by guiding the patient through rigorous, repetitive physical activities, monitoring the patient’s progress, and adapting the program of recovery as needed to produce optimal results.

What is Exercise Therapy?

Exercise therapy is a specific, intensive plan of physical activities designed to restore normal musculoskeletal functioning or reduce pain due to an injury or a disease process such as traumatic brain injury or multiple sclerosis. Based on principles of exercise science and neuroplasticity, this form of therapy seeks to restore functionality both above and below the site of injury through neuro re-education and therapeutic movement.

Following an injury or damage to the neural pathway, function is decreased. However, the brain has the potential to reorganize itself and create new neural pathways to compensate for and adapt to the loss of function. These new pathways are formed through rigorous and repetitive stimulation of the brain. Exercise therapy utilizes specific, targeted activities that stimulate the brain to create those new neural pathways. It is intensive, repetitive and highly individualized for the patient. For the exercise therapist, the interventions are physical and intensive, requiring stamina and strength to assist patients who may have significant injury or impairment in mobility.

Exercise therapy is sometimes referred to as ‘Activity Based Therapy’ or ‘Restorative Therapy’. It is sometimes mistaken for ‘Physical Therapy’. Physical therapy focuses on restoration of movement to a particular part of the body at the site of the injury. Exercise therapy is focused on restoration of function through the effects of exercise at the cellular (neurological) level.

What Does an Exercise Therapist Do?

The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) defines exercise physiology or therapy as the study, assessment and improvement of the human condition including biomechanical movement. An exercise therapist has more training than a personal trainer. The exercise therapist also has additional job duties and responsibilities.

Some primary duties of an exercise therapist may include the following:

  1. Sports Nutrition. An exercise therapist may help train individuals to understand nutrition, movement and related human biomechanical systems. Some exercise therapists may work with a nutritionist to help create an individualized health and eating plan for athletes and others.
  2. Training. An exercise therapist may work with clients to help them develop and carrying out comprehensive training programs based on their individual needs and health status. This may include training in using protective equipment and injury-preventive items including tape, bandages and braces.
  3. First Aid. Exercise therapists may provide first aid, and provide emergency care to clients depending on their role and their job function. Many will also engage in the administrative tasks associated with caring for an injured client. This may include keeping records of a client, and writing reports regarding injuries and treatment programs available to injured parties.
  4. Rehabilitation. Many exercise therapists engage in rehabilitation programs, working for athletes that have been injured or require extensive therapy. An exercise therapist is often trained to recognize injuries and evaluate the severity of injuries a client may have.

Traditionally, an exercise therapist works much like other therapists. This requires that an exercise therapist take time to evaluate a patient’s medical history. In evaluating a patient’s medical history, the exercise therapist can best determine what exercises and fitness programs are best suited to their client. Other job functions may include providing a client with fitness tests. These may include measuring blood pressure, oxygen saturation, body fat and related patient health characteristics.

Lastly, an exercise therapist will often work to help develop a rehabilitation and training program for clients that have suffered injuries. This plan may include a prevention plan for preventing future injuries.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become an Exercise Therapist?

Most exercise therapist will acquire a minimum of a bachelor degree from an accredited program. This may include four years of study with concentration in classes that include anatomy, physiology, biology, physical fitness and nutrition. Individuals often earn their bachelor’s degree in psychology or counseling. Many exercise therapist also earn a master’s degree in exercise/movement therapy.

There are other certifications and licensures that an exercise therapist may acquire. These include certification examination offered by the National Council for Therapeutic Recreation Certification. Individuals wishing to become certified are required to complete 480 hour supervised job placement experience before appearing for the exam. The CAATE, or Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education. also offers a certification. This program certifies trainers. There is also the Committee on Accreditation for Exercise Sciences, which provides training and accreditation for therapists interested in developing physiology training programs.

What Do You Learn in an Exercise Therapy Program?

The curriculum for many exercise therapy programs includes coursework that focuses on the two primary domains of work in this field – the physical health and the mental health of clients.

As a result, exercise therapy programs include many classes that focus on physical fitness. These courses might include health, kinesiology, dietetics, or even sports performance. Other courses might revolve around addressing physiological injuries. For example, exercise therapists must be able to understand warning signs of injuries, how to treat existing injuries, and how physical injuries are connected to psychological health.

On the other side of the coin, exercise therapists must have a working knowledge of essential case management skills. Degree programs in this field often focus on developing and implementing exercise regimens to address various physical and mental health issues. Likewise, exercise therapy programs help students develop the communication skills required of them when working with clients and when working as part of a larger team of professionals, as is often the case.

At the undergraduate level, coursework is fairly generalized with introductory courses in the areas discussed above. This might include general psychology, health and kinesiology, and the like. Graduate work, however, is much more in-depth, focusing not just on knowledge but also on skills needed to carry out effective exercise therapy treatments. Graduate work will often include advanced studies in anatomy, physiology, motor learning, and performance enhancement.

Additionally, because exercise therapy is often used to help address issues like anger, phobias, and eating disorders, graduate students will undertake detailed studies of these and other mental health conditions such that they are well equipped to assist their clients in overcoming their life’s difficulties.

What Skills and Qualities are Required for an Exercise Therapist?

An exercise therapist will require a diverse skill set to work with clients from many different backgrounds. Among the primary considerations and skills that an exercise physiologist will require include:

  1. Gentle and Empathic Nature. An exercise therapist needs to have a gentle and compassionate nature. Most are working with clients that are in much pain and a great deal of discomfort.
  2. Decision-Making and Problem Solving. Exercise therapists have to make informed decisions and solve complex problems that may relate to one’s rehabilitation and recovery. To excel in this area it helps for a therapist to be creative and innovative.
  3. Organized and Detail-Oriented. An exercise therapist must organize many details regarding their clients. This includes tracking their client progress, and ensuring that clients are participating in the right treatment or correct fitness program.

Exercise therapists must also have good communication skills, to work with clients and diverse personnel that may include a team of coaches, athletes, and patients, other healthcare providers and even parents when working with young athletes.

What is the Salary for an Exercise Therapist?

The salary for an exercise therapist will vary tremendously, based on many factors including how many years’ experience the therapist has, what certification and training the therapist has and where the exercise therapist works. Most therapists will make a salary that is similar to that of other psychologists or mental health therapists.

According to Salary.com, the median annual salary for an exercise psychologist is $50,250, as of August 2017. The BLS reports that the salary for exercise physiologists may vary from $32,000 to $74,000 representing the fast amount of difference experience and location may influence. According to BLS in May 2016, exercise physiologists earned an average salary of $50,310.

Exercise therapists may work as athletic trainers, during sporting events, and for other specialty needs, requiring flexibility in scheduling and travel.

What is the Job Outlook for Exercise Therapists?

The job outlook for exercise therapists is expected to grow during the next ten years. The BLS reports that the job prospects for athletic trainers and exercise physiologists will increase by as much as 21% and 11% respectively (2014-2024), which is faster than that of other occupations. This may provide opportunities for therapists interested in working in colleges, youth leagues, healthcare facilities and more.

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