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Recreational Therapist vs. Physical Therapist: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

Recreational therapists and physical therapists are both health care professionals who help patients improve their physical well-being. Though both positions require a high level of education and training, there are several key differences between recreational therapists and physical therapists. In this article, we discuss the similarities and differences between these two professions, and we provide helpful tips for choosing the right career path.

What is a Recreational Therapist?

Recreational Therapists help people with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities by using recreation and other activities to improve their quality of life. They develop individualized treatment plans that consider each patient’s unique needs and interests. Recreational Therapists work with patients to help them regain strength and coordination, improve their communication and social skills, and reduce stress and anxiety. They also teach patients how to use adaptive equipment so they can participate in recreational activities. Recreational Therapists typically work in hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and community recreation programs.

What is a Physical Therapist?

Physical Therapists are responsible for helping patients regain movement and function after an injury or illness. They work with patients of all ages, from infants to the elderly. Physical Therapists assess a patient’s strength, range of motion, balance and coordination. They develop a treatment plan based on the patient’s individual needs and goals. Physical Therapists use a variety of techniques to help patients regain movement, such as exercises, stretching, massage, heat and cold therapy. They may also use electrical stimulation or other modalities. Physical Therapists often work in outpatient clinics, hospitals, nursing homes or home health agencies.

Recreational Therapist vs. Physical Therapist

Here are the main differences between a recreational therapist and a physical therapist.

Job Duties

Physical therapists focus on the physical aspects of healthcare and how they can improve a patient’s mobility, functionality and comfort. They use therapies like exercise, massage and heat to treat patients with conditions like arthritis or back pain. Recreational therapists work with patients who have mental health issues as well as those recovering from accidents or surgeries. Their job is to help patients enjoy life again by using therapies like music or art. Both professions perform assessments, evaluations and formulate treatment plans for patients.

Job Requirements

Recreational therapists typically need a bachelor’s degree in recreational therapy, physical education, kinesiology or another related field. Some employers may prefer candidates with a master’s degree. In addition to their educational requirements, recreational therapists must also be licensed in most states. The licensure process generally includes passing an exam and completing continuing education credits.

Physical therapists must first earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program. These programs usually take three years to complete. After graduating, physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam before they can obtain licensure in their state. Many states also require physical therapists to complete a certain number of continuing education credits every year to maintain their license.

Work Environment

Physical therapists work in a variety of settings, including hospitals, private practices and outpatient clinics. They may also work for sports teams or schools as athletic trainers. Recreational therapists typically work in community centers, parks and other public spaces where they can provide services to people who need them. Some recreational therapists may work at resorts or cruise ships.


Both recreational therapists and physical therapists use problem-solving skills in their jobs. For recreational therapists, they need to be able to assess a patient’s needs and develop a plan of care that will address those needs. They also need to be able to adapt their plans as needed based on the patient’s response. Physical therapists also need to be able to assess a patient’s needs and develop a plan of care. However, they may not need to be as flexible with their plans as recreational therapists because they typically work with patients who have more straightforward issues.

Recreational therapists also need to have excellent communication skills. They need to be able to explain their plans to patients and their families, as well as communicate with other members of the healthcare team. Physical therapists also need to have good communication skills. However, they may not need to be as adept at explaining their plans to patients and families because they typically work with patients who have a better understanding of their condition.

Both recreational therapists and physical therapists need to have strong interpersonal skills. Recreational therapists need to be able to build relationships with their patients so that they can motivate them to participate in therapy. Physical therapists also need to be able to build relationships with their patients. However, they may not need to be as


The average salary for a recreational therapist is $58,645 per year, while the average salary for a physical therapist is $84,744 per year. The salary for both of these positions can vary depending on the location of the job, the level of experience and the type of employer.


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