Hands-On Work: Your Potential to Heal as a Massage Therapist

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Winona Bontrager is passionate about her career in massage therapy. In fact, she likes to think of her trade as a gift to the tired, the sore and the stressed out.

“I love working with people one-on-one and allowing them to have my full attention for an hour,” she said. “It feels like an important gift to offer someone in our busy lives.”

Bontrager currently works as president of the Lancaster School of Massage in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which she founded back in 1991. She is one of more than 300,000 dedicated workers and students in the U.S. with a career in massage therapy, according to the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) — and it’s a career field that’s projected to grow 26% in the next eight years, far faster than the national average of 7%.

That makes now the perfect time to dive, hands-first, into a career in massage therapy.

What Is the Day to Day Like for a Massage Therapist?

I asked Bontrager to walk me through the typical workday. I expected her to answer, “We provide massage therapy.” And though she did say exactly that, she also painted a much fuller picture of some of the other tasks you might do as a massage therapist.

There are the administrative tasks, to start. As examples, Bontrager rattled off, “Making reminder calls for appointments, keeping clean linens (there’s lots of washing and folding linens) and marketing your practice.” And before you actually get to the massage, Bontrager says you must “conduct a full intake interview to understand the health of clients and why they are seeking a massage.”

Bontrager also explained that key tasks in between massages include “creating a restful space for clients” and practicing personal stretching and movement for self-care.

What Are the Skills and Qualities of a Successful Massage Therapist?

A smiling woman stretches the leg of another woman while giving her a massage.
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A career in massage therapy is not for everyone. It can be physically taxing and requires perfect customer service. But for those who enjoy the art of massage, and who possess the skills and qualities of a successful therapist, the career can be rewarding.

“You need to be able to look someone in the eye when you talk to them,” Bontrager explained. In fact, customer service was her focus when talking through qualities and skills. “You have to give a warm welcome to everyone, ask personal questions (as they pertain to their treatment), learn to be nonjudgmental and cultivate listening skills.”

“Keep personal thoughts to yourself,” she added. “This time is about your client, not you.”

Bontrager added punctuality, great physical health and an ability to set boundaries as important skills. If you hope to open your own practice, cultivating business and marketing skills is also crucial. And, of course, you’ve got to be good at administering a massage.

The Challenges of Being a Massage Therapist

Massage therapy requires patience, perseverance and a willingness to learn, grow and stay physically and mentally fit. Bontrager said massage therapy is busy and challenging – that oftentimes makes it difficult to find a balance between work and a private life.

Frustrations of the job, according to Bontrager, include clients who don’t show up for their appointments and “not having enough time before and after clients to center yourself and focus your attention, often due to working on too many clients in a day.”

One of the biggest challenges for massage therapists is remaining positive and professional with difficult clients. Bontrager specifically mentioned clients who “want to tell you how to work on them instead of working with you to discover what is best for them.” That’s where that patience really comes in handy.

The Rewards of Being a Massage Therapist

The median pay for massage therapists in 2016 was nearly $40,000 a year, but the perks of this career go far deeper than just good pay.

For starters, the career is flexible. Depending on the path you take, you might have flexible hours (or make your own schedule) and work full or part-time, depending on your needs.

Perhaps more exciting is the number of directions you can take with your background as a massage therapist. According to the AMTA, massage therapists practice anywhere from cruise ships and hotels to spas and resorts; from hospitals and wellness centers to salons and health clubs. Some massage therapists even work for sports teams, for companies like Google or from home offices.

Even more important: Massage therapy is an incredibly fulfilling career. “My favorite part of the profession is the puzzle of each client,” Bontrager told me, “Learning how to work with them to find out why they are feeling the way they are. It makes me happy every day to work with people who feel so much better when they get off my table.

And when it comes to her most stressed-out clients? Bontrager swells with pride at the look of total relaxation on their faces after treatment.

How to Become a Massage Therapist

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If a career in massage therapy sounds right for you, that’s great — but unfortunately, you can’t just run out and buy some towels and oil and open up shop. While you won’t need a college degree, you will need some schooling and licensure.

“Each state has its own education and testing requirements to practice,” Bontrager explained. “Education hours for schools and state requirements are usually between 500 and 1,000 hours.

You can find information for your specific state – including education (and continued education) requirements, exam requirements and state board URLs – at Natural Healers. Bontrager noted that you must have your high school diploma or GED to apply.

After completing your education, you will need to pass the MBLEx (Massage and Bodywork Licensing Examination), administered by the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards. You can find information on the MBLEx here; just remember to study before your test day. The AMTA even offers a free massage exam prep app.

After you pass the exam, you will need to apply to your state or governmental body for a license. “This also requires that you can pass a police background check,” Bontrager added.

“Once you obtain your license, there are continuing education requirements in most states in order to maintain it,” Bontrager said. “Once you’ve taken the required test, you don’t usually need to take it again to practice in another state. But this can also vary.”

Not settled on a career in massage therapy and hoping to stay far away from college debt? Consider a career as a mail carrier or real estate agent.

Timothy Moore is an editor and a freelance writer. Though a career in massage therapy sounds really cool, his hands are more suited to the keyboard.