I’m often asked what the difference between an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) and a personal trainer (PT) is. So to clear up a few misconceptions that both positions are one-and-the-same, I thought I’d put finger to key and note down seven of the key differences between the two qualifications and roles.
Starting off, a large difference between an AEP and PT is the level of education required to become accredited as either. For AEP accreditation, each practitioner is required to complete a minimum of 4 years of University study of an Exercise Science degree or similar. On the other hand, a PT can become accredited with as little as a short two week private training course. Yes, you read that correctly, your PT at your gym or running your local boot camp may have completed as little as two weeks of study to gain their Certificate III in fitness. Pretty scary I know!!!
2. Minimum experience
As part of exercise physiology accreditation, each exercise physiologist is required to demonstrate a minimum of 500 hours of supervised practical experience across a wide range of clientele. Compulsory subgroup populations trained with includes apparently healthy clientele, and those with cardiopulmonary, metabolic, musculoskeletal, neurological, or neuromuscular conditions. In addition, many AEPs are also experienced working with oncology and renal patients, or performing cardiac stress testing. On the contrary, PT applicants often perform less than 20 hours of practical experience and work only with apparently healthy clients.
Although PT courses cover foundation studies in exercise science, design and instructing, I’m sure you can imagine the depth each subject would cover considering they have six subjects to complete in their short two week course. On the other hand, the education component AEP qualification is far more in-depth and requires at least a 6 month full-time equivalent University study load in the following subjects:
4. Ensuring correct exercise prescription
Although I haven’t coined the terms ‘exercise prescription’ or ‘exercise is medicine’ myself, to many they are both relatively new terms. See, AEPs are trained to use exercise to improve health outcomes similar to how a doctor is trained to prescribe a pill. As part of their training, AEPs are taught how and why an exercise works, not just the muscles an exercise works. For example, an AEP is trained to identify how your reduced hip flexors range of movement are affecting your pelvic position which alters the gluteal muscles moment-arm and causes a functional weakness and instability of the hip which can contribute to your back, hip, knee or ankle pain. Following this, the AEP also knows what the best exercises are to address these imbalances and correct them. Further, not only are AEPs knowledgeable in exercise prescription for joint or muscle related conditions, they are also skilled with the knowledge of how to safely implement an exercise therapy intervention and improve health outcomes in someone with a history of cardiac complications, diabetes, high blood pressure, or weight management problems and know how the medications the client are on may affect, or be affected by exercise.
On the other side, PTs generally use a narrow approach rather than a holistic one due to their lack of training and knowledge. This might include a view where a leg extension exercise just works the quadriceps muscles, rather than looking at how excessive strengthening of the quadriceps without sufficient posterior chain strengthening may lead to muscle imbalances that can cause irreversible knee damage. In addition, PTs have very little, to zero training in the interaction between client medication and exercise.
5. Motivation and encouragement
As AEPs are required to study a psychology component in their studies, their approach to client motivation is generally based on evidence, rather than just industry habits. For example, most AEPs aim to intrinsically motivate their client as research shows that for long-term program adherence and best health outcomes, intrinsic motivation works best. This may include educating the client on how exercise and lifestyle modification can help to improve their health, level of energy, or general wellbeing. On the other hand, the PT often uses extrinsic motivation such as the use of shouting at you which might work in the short term, but isn’t generally advised for long-term program adherence or enjoyment. And for those who do prefer being shouted at, I’m sure if you ask you AEP, they’ll happily oblige ;)
6. Clientele qualified and insured to work with
While personal trainers are only qualified and insured to train with persons considered to be low risk (i.e. apparently healthy populations), AEPs are qualified and trained to deliver exercise therapy for all categories of clientele including elite athletes or those classified as high risk. Moderate-high risk clients that only AEPs should train can include males ≥45yrs or females ≥55yrs, those with a BMI ≥30kg/m2, a history of cardiac complications, the elderly, diabetics or asthmatics.
7. Private health fund rebates and Medicare referral eligibility
Unlike PTs who are only recognised as fitness professionals, AEPs are recognised allied-health workers (other allied-health workers include physiotherapists, chiropractors, Dietitians, podiatrists, and occupational therapists). This means clients seeing an AEP under GP referral, workcover, Department of Veteran Affairs (DVA), diabetes services, or Aboriginal health services may be entitled to receive Medicare health rebates or bulked-billed services. In addition, 30 of the leading Australian private health insurers now pay a benefit for services provided by an AEP. As many AEPs are additionally registered as fitness professionals, any private health fund rebate available for PT services are also claimable with your AEP.
So in summary, hopefully you can see there’s a very large difference between an AEP and PT. This is not only in terms of their education, experience, or training, but also with the wide range of clientele that AEPs are able to safely work with from elite athletes, to the chronically ill, frail or elderly. So next time you’re thinking about whether to see an AEP or PT, think about whether you’d put your life in the hands of someone with only two weeks of study to service your car brakes, or someone with the highest industry qualification. I know who I’d put my health and trust in!!
Brodie Gardner has a Masters in Exercise Physiology, Honours in Sports Science and competes as a professional triathlete. He has a long history working with elite athletes and has provided consultation services to numerous Australian sporting associations.