Do Active Seniors Need a Personal Trainer or Physical Therapist?

It’s important to maintain exercise, especially as you age. As physical therapists, you may be seeing more active seniors looking to stay fit after injuries or orthopedic surgery.

But active seniors who are keen on keeping their bodies fit may be signing up for gym classes or doing routines that are no longer safe. Think of all those Zumba classes or senior weight training classes. Who knows if the instructors are aware of their medical conditions and past injuries.

This can lead to serious complications and even new injuries that can derail a fitness program.

Since active seniors have different exercise needs than a younger population, it might be difficult to determine what kind of program would best serve them. Can they be well-managed by a personal trainer? Or are they better off with a physical therapist?

“We’re both needed,” advises AlterG client Karen Shuler, PT, DPT, and founder of Lifestyle Physical Therapy in Lake Wylie, SC. “It’s just that we have different roles.”

The Role Of Personal Training
Personal training is a structured workout program that allows clients to exercise on a regular basis under supervision to maximize results.

Personal training is safe for senior clients, with a growing number of personal trainers’ clients coming from the senior population, according to the American College of Sports Medicine Certification.

The Role Of Physical Therapy
To highlight where personal training ends and physical therapy begins, Karen explains her work with Silver Sneakers, an exercise program designed for active seniors.

Physical therapists don’t participate in the fitness activities themselves. However, they do rehabilitate and educate patients who are hurt and return them to their regular routine.

“We will transition people in and out of the Silver Sneakers program,” Karen explains. “So, if they become injured and can’t participate, they’re referred to our clinic to restore their ability to safely return.”

By using the AlterG Anti-Gravity Treadmill™, Karen is able to get her seniors back to the program in no time. In addition to being able to get her patients moving with less pain and impact, the treadmill also allows patients to continue their exercise routine.

“Our clinic has found Silver Sneakers to be a great program to keep people moving,” she adds.

Fitness-Related Issues
Karen doesn’t recommend that patients use a physical therapist if they’re active seniors without problems. For weight loss, strength building, and fitness maintenance, a personal trainer may actually work best for seniors.


“That is not what physical therapy is,” Karen explains. “We are not here for individuals to perform a daily workout.” [I’m not sure this is appropriate. There are Physical Therapists that cross over into the fitness/training realm.]

“We provide a skilled treatment plan designed to correct dysfunctional movement and return Seniors to their previous level of function, inclusive of a daily workout routine to maintain the gains made during therapy,” she says.

Issues With Pain And Mobility
Seniors who struggle with pain, balance, and coordination, and who need rehabilitation are best suited for physical therapy.

Personal trainers are trained to help patients improve their fitness level, not heal injuries or deal with pathology. The danger in relying solely on a personal trainer is if they push a patient too far beyond their limits, says Karen. There should be a team approach be

Karen recommends seeing a physical therapist when there’s an existing condition that makes exercise hard.

“For example, if they have any kind of asymmetry in their body, such as one leg being weaker than the other,” Karen explains. “Or if they have arthritis and swelling in their knees or other joints that limits normal movement patterns.”

This can also apply to Seniors with neurological disorders like Parkinson’s, another population Karen works with. She finds that using the AlterG works particularly well in these cases since the AlterG differential air pressure system supports patient’s body weight while walking.

“When someone’s on a regular treadmill, you’re dealing with the fear of falling, and sometimes they can’t keep up with it,” she says. “Whereas in the AlterG, they can kind of relax into it and that fear of falling is gone or significantly reduced.”

It’s A Team Effort
Personal trainers are no replacement for physical therapists and vice versa. However, both have important roles to play in maintaining health as people age.

To decide if a patient needs a personal trainer or physical therapist, take into account their fitness level, their health (if their bones or muscles are injured), and their goals (fitness or rehabilitation).

Connect with us today to learn more about how the Anti-Gravity Treadmill can help treat your active senior patients who require more support but still need cardio, strength, and flexibility training.