Tips for Success in Physical Therapy

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Physical therapy is often required after an accident, surgery, or when dealing with certain illnesses and health conditions. The goal of physical therapy is to improve or fully restore your range of motion and abilities. Physical therapy can help you walk again, improve your ability to reach up or lift items, and much more. While working with a local physical therapist is the most vital part of physical therapy, there are some things you can do on your own that will help improve your chances of success.

Do note, however, that you always want to talk to your physical therapist before doing anything that could cause injury or set you back in your physical therapy. Most of these tips focus on attitude and other intangible ways you can help improve your physical therapy experience. If you want to do at-home physical therapy exercises or push your body more, always talk to your physical therapist first. The last thing you want to do is cause further injury.


Set Realistic Goals


This is likely going to be one of the first things you discuss with your physical therapist, but if they don’t bring it up, you need to. You need to have a goal with your physical therapy that is realistic and measurable. Saying that you want to get better, whatever “better” is for you, is too vague. You can’t tell if you have achieved that goal or not. Is “better” being able to walk with a cane, or is it being able to jog around the block unaided? Make a goal that you will be able to measure and recognize when you have achieved it.

A good goal is specific and often includes an element of time. For example, a goal of “be able to walk unaided within six months” is a very specific, measurable goal that you can work towards.

man improving his ability to walk with physical therapy

But succeeding in physical therapy requires more than just a goal—it requires a realistic goal. If you have been in a severe car accident that greatly damaged both of your legs and hips, it may simply not be possible for you to be as active as you once were. Setting a goal of running a marathon, in this case, is very unrealistic. You would likely never be able to reach that goal. Goals that are not realistic actually hurt your progress because they can lead to feeling depressed.

That’s not to say that you want a goal that is too easy or that doesn’t push you. Your goal should be challenging. The trick is to determine exactly where the line between challenging and likely not possible is. Your physical therapist and other members of your healthcare team will be able to help you determine where this line is and talk about what they believe you can realistically achieve. Also, remember there’s nothing wrong with setting another goal or moving your goalposts if you achieve your initial goal.


Commit to Physical Therapy


It’s also very important that you commit to your physical therapy schedule and exercises. You need to make all of your appointments, even if you are feeling tired that day or don’t want to go. These appointments are not scheduled randomly—your physical therapist planned them out to take advantage of your body’s recovery time and to build up your strength and stamina. Yes, you may still be sore, or you may find that some exercises leave you aching for the rest of the day. However, that is often a sign of healing. If you ever feel actual pain from any of your physical therapy exercises, you need to immediately tell your physical therapist.

woman with a foam roller under her leg in a physical therapy session

Committing to going to physical therapy is often easy since you have set appointments. However, if you have any exercises to do at home, it can be easier to skip a day or simply not do them at all. To be fully committed to your physical therapy plan, you have to do these at-home exercises as laid out by your therapist. This means doing them regularly and as instructed, even if you don’t feel like it.

Along the same lines, this commitment also needs to encompass your safety. While you may be tempted to push yourself and do twice or three times as many at-home exercises, you need to recognize that you may not be able to safely perform them. You need to commit to following your physical therapy plan, even when you may want to do more. If you feel like you can, you should talk to your therapist first. As detrimental as not doing your exercises can be, overdoing it can be even worse if you aggravate your injuries or cause additional ones.


Be Honest


There are two reasons why being honest with your physical therapist is important for success. First, you need to be honest about how your body is feeling. It’s normal to feel sore after your exercises. This indicates that the muscles have been worked out. But it should be a “good” type of sore. If you ever feel pain or have any type of soreness that lasts longer than usual, you need to speak up. Pain is not a normal part of the physical therapy process and is an indication that something is wrong. Don’t hide how you are feeling from your physical therapist.

woman speaking with her physical therapist about her goals

You also need to be honest with your physical therapist about skipping exercises. Will they like hearing that you’re not doing what you should be? Perhaps not, but if they know you simply cannot commit to doing exercises on your own, they can adjust your in-person training. If you know going in that you will likely not follow an exercise plan, tell them. Most physical therapists would like to know this upfront so they know what they can expect and can help you find a way to move forward. Your physical therapist is an ally in your journey to recovery, not someone you need to conceal things from.




Similar to being honest, it’s also important for you to communicate with your physical therapist. This includes being honest about how your body feels and about doing your exercises, of course, but there are other things you need to talk to them about. One thing you should certainly speak up about is your mental state. Let them know if you’re getting frustrated by your current progress level or if you’re starting to think you aren’t getting any of the benefits of physical therapy.

You need to communicate about your sessions, too. Let them know if you won’t be able to attend or if you need to reschedule for any reason as soon as you can. If you’re having difficulty getting to your physical therapy, they may be able to help arrange transportation. You will never know if you don’t ask.

woman speaking with her physical therapist over a tablet

One last point on communicating: always ask any question you may have. It’s vital that you understand your own health, so you know how to take care of yourself. Ask questions, even if you think it’s something unimportant. A good physical therapist will take the time to answer any questions you may have.


Approach Physical Therapy with a Positive Mindset


It can be hard to think of physical therapy exercise programs in a positive light. Many people, at least initially, connect them with the accident or health condition that they are dealing with. Since many people have negative emotions about that, they transfer those negative feelings onto their physical therapy.

Unfortunately, this means they see physical therapy as something they dislike. If you do this, you’ll come to hate going to your sessions. You may be tempted to skip one, and you will likely not be very dedicated to doing your at-home exercises. You may, intentionally or unintentionally, be short-tempered with your therapist.

female physical therapist assisting a man for his physical therapy session

It can be difficult to get out of this negative mindset. However, if you really try to approach physical therapy with a positive attitude, you will find that it’s much easier to do. You may not necessarily enjoy it, but you won’t dread going to your appointments. You will be more open to listening to your physical therapist and providing your own honest, open feedback.

How can you change your attitude? You can look at the progress you’ve already made and let that drive you towards your goal. You can set up a reward system for yourself. For example, after a week of going to physical therapy, you can treat yourself to dinner at your favorite restaurant. Tell your family, friends, and those closest to you if you’re struggling to dedicate time to physical therapy. You can use them for support which can help hold you accountable.


You Can Succeed


Physical therapy is not always going to be easy. There may be times when you do really hate it. But that’s okay. You don’t always have to like doing it, but physical therapy is necessary if you want to recover from your injury or regain your range of motion. As long as you approach it with that mindset, you can use it as the tool it is to get better. Set a goal, communicate honestly with your physical therapist, and commit yourself to your exercises. If you can do these things, you can succeed at physical therapy.