Physical Therapy is a Tree With Many Branches

Starting a career in physical therapy is like climbing a tree. Everyone starts with the same trunk, but pretty quickly, you have to make some decisions about which way you’re going to go. What kind of people do you want to work with? Where do you want to practice? And how far up the tree do you want to climb? You’ll get to grow professionally – learning more, getting better clinically, and maybe even improving your sales and business skills, but that’s not all. Physical therapy gives you a chance to grow personally too.

Pick your people

You can pick the type of people you want to work with – sports physical therapists work with athletes, helping them recover from injuries and improve performance through exercise and hands-on techniques. Geriatric physical therapists work with elderly patients on mobility problems, pain or managing chronic conditions. Pediatric physical therapists work with infants and children providing developmental assessments and helping them improve their gross motor skills.

Pick your place

You can also pick where you work – there are physical therapy jobs in nursing homes, hospitals, outpatient clinics and schools. Physical therapists provide care wherever people need it. So far, we’ve only mentioned the more common places you’ll find PTs – if you want to specialize further, you may find yourself working only in the ICU with critical care patients, in a factory doing industrial rehabilitation and ergonomics, in a women’s health clinic, or even working in a preventative, public health role.

Grow professionally

Most physical therapy careers start in a general role, working with all types of different patients. If you work in a large health system, you may even rotate between settings. But as you find the type of people you like to work with and the setting you prefer, you have the option to improve your skills and focus on a specialty area of practice. Again, you have lots of options on how to do this. You could:
● Take an internship position or join a fellowship program
● Attend workshops or conferences
● Read journals and textbooks
● Collaborate with your colleagues and mentors
● Take courses in other areas of medicine
● Study abroad or take courses online


Grow personally

Your clinical skills aren’t the only thing a career in physical therapy can grow though – you’ll grow personally as well. You have to learn to have compassion and empathy when you work with ill or injured people. You have to work as a part of a team. You need sales skills – most people aren’t going to want to make changes in their routines, or do the exercises you prescribe at home. You’ll learn to work with people who have different opinions and different viewpoints from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds.

You may also have a chance to improve your business skills. You could advance out of the clinical setting and into a management role. Some PTs start their own practices, or a company in a field related to physical therapy like wellness, performance, injury prevention or population health for large corporations.

Wherever you start in physical therapy, you’ll have a lot of options on where you end up. Chances are you’ll explore more than one branch of the physical therapy tree. That’s OK, having the chance to grow and change is part of what makes PT so exciting!

Physical Therapy Isn’t Just For Pain. It Can Keep You Healthy For Life.

You know that physical activity is good for you. The benefits are well researched and the list is impressive.
Here’s just a sampling:

● Releases endorphins to make you feel good and fight depression
● Helps control weight
● Prevents diseases like stroke, diabetes and some forms of cancer
● Improves sleep
● Helps you live longer

Recent studies even show that physical activity strengthens your immune system, with a protective effect against COVID, and that staying active through middle age protects your brain as you age.

Physical activity is a wonder drug. If it was a pill, you’d buy it and take it every day. But even though activity is free, less than 25% of Americans meet the CDC recommendations for activity. We clearly need help.

Physical Therapists Are The Experts in Human Movement

To be active, you need to be able to move. Physical Therapists do more than help you recover from surgeries or major injuries. They are the experts in human movement. Sure, you could see a strength coach to lift weights, hire a personal trainer, go to a yoga class to work on your flexibility and balance, and see a chiropractor for adjustments. But that seems like a lot of people when a PT can help you with all of these things and more. Nobody knows more about human movement or looks at your health the same way a PT does. Your PT can help you with every aspect of movement including strength, range of motion, flexibility, endurance, balance and coordination.

As medical professionals they can help you with injuries or other issues. Your PT can work with your doctor to help use activity to manage things like diabetes, cholesterol levels or blood pressure instead of prescriptions. Your PT is also trained to work with people of all ages, so you can develop a long-term relationship and they can continue to adjust and modify your routine as you age or your goals change.

Stay Healthy For Life

Staying active has a long list of benefits both now and in the future. But chances are you’re not moving enough to make the most of those benefits. Most people need help. Physical therapists are the most qualified professional in existence to help keep you healthy now and in the future. So don’t think of your PT as someone you see when you need help with pain or an injury. Think of them as your partner and coach working to help you stay healthy for life.

Will COVID-19 Change the Typical PT Patient?

People usually see a physical therapist for pain or loss of function. Think of the person who has
back pain, the injured athlete or the person who’s had a stroke. They all want to improve how
they move and complete tasks. Now, there is good reason to wonder if physical therapists will
start seeing more people who are not in pain or having difficulty moving. Why would these
people come to a PT? To improve their overall health and wellness.


There is strong evidence suggesting that movement is a valuable predictor of future health
and resilience against disease. Physical therapists are movement specialists, so taking
advantage of their expertise makes sense if your goal is to become healthier and live longer.
Here are some examples of the power of movement when it comes to predicting future health:


Gait Velocity

Gait velocity is how fast you walk. Studies have shown that if your typical walking speed is over
1 m/s or 3.3 ft/s, you’re likely able to complete typical daily activities independently. You’re also
less likely to be hospitalized and less likely to have adverse events like falls.


If you’d like to test yourself, measure out a straight, flat course to walk between 10′ and 30′ long.
You’ll also need 5′ or so at the beginning and the end for acceleration and deceleration. Walk
the course at your typical speed and divide the length of the course by how long it took you to
walk it (distance/time). That’s your gait velocity.


Get On and Off the Floor

A series of studies suggest that if you can go from standing to sitting on the floor and back to
standing without using your hands, you’re a lot less likely to die than someone who can’t. It’s
called the sitting-rising test. Here’s how it works:


You start standing, and without support you sit down on the floor, then stand back up. You start
with a score of 10. Every time you put a hand, knee, forearm or the side of your leg on the floor
you lose 1 point. Putting a hand on your knee or thigh to help also costs a point. In a sample of
over 2,000 people, they found that scoring less than 8 points made you twice as likely to die in
the next 6 years when compared to people who scored higher. Score 3 or less and you’re 5
times more likely to die in the same period. Overall, each point in the test is worth a 21%
decrease in mortality from all causes.


Notice that both gait velocity and the sitting-rising test aren’t specific to any one thing. The risk
of hospitalization in the gait velocity studies was hospitalization for any reason. Death in the
sitting-rising studies was death from anything. So while we know that exercise and healthy
lifestyle reduce your risk of specific diseases like heart disease or diabetes, it appears that
being able to move may provide much more wide ranging protection than we previously thought.

Do You Know Your Movement Vital Signs?

Most people think of heart rate or blood pressure when they think of vital signs. It is common to
use numbers to quantify health and risk of disease. The American Heart Association
encourages people to “know their numbers” referring to blood pressure, blood cholesterol, blood
glucose, and weight. However, research is now showing the importance of moving properly for
health. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers you can use to quantify your movement health:

Walking Speed

Walking speed has been called the “sixth vital sign” in medical literature recently. It is easy to
measure, and takes into account strength, balance, coordination, confidence, cardiovascular
fitness, tolerance to activity, and a whole host of other factors. It has also been shown to be
predictive of future hospitalizations, functional decline, and overall mortality. Normal walking
speed is considered to be 1.2 to 1.4 meters per second.

Push Ups

Push ups are popular to build strength, but a recent study found that they can show us a lot
about your heart too. Researchers found that men who could do 40 or more consecutive push
ups were at a 96% lower risk for cardiovascular disease than were men who could do less than
10. The push up test was also more useful in predicting future cardiovascular disease than
aerobic capacity measured on a treadmill.

Grip Strength

Hand grip strength has been shown to be strongly correlated with health. The stronger your
hand grip is, the less likely you are to suffer from cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease,
COPD, and all types of cancer. In the study, muscle weakness was defined as grip strength <26
kg for men and <16 kg for women. Grip strength below these numbers was highly correlated
with an increase in disease.

Standing From the Floor

If you can’t easily get down on the floor and back up your health might be in trouble, according
to a study that looked at more than 2,000 people. The study asked people to go from standing
to sitting on the floor and back up with as little support as needed. They found that if you need to
use more than one hand to get up and down from the floor that you were 2 to 5 times more
likely to die in the next 7 years than someone who can do it with just one hand, or even better,
no hands at all.

Moving well is obviously important to overall health and longer life. These tests can give a
snapshot of how you’re doing. If you’re having trouble with any of them, considering seeing a
movement specialist – your physical therapist.