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Rubbing People the Right Way : In Uptight Times, the Old-Fashioned Massage Fills a Growing Knead

Associated Press

After hours hunched over a steering wheel, breathing bus fumes and fighting traffic, chauffeur Michael Manganaro needs to be kneaded.

For him, it’s a company perk, the kind of service offered State Department bureaucrats, professional hockey players and a growing number of other Americans.

Manganaro and about 200 other employees of H.J. Heinz Co. can kick off their shoes and sink into a padded chair for a 15-minute rubdown once a week in a quiet conference room at the company’s downtown headquarters.

“Driving in the city really can tense you up,” Manganaro, 41, says as he gets out of the chair. “This really relaxes you. It really makes you feel good.”

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The rubdowns are offered as part of a new stress-reduction program in which the company pays half of the $12.50 fee for 15 minutes. It’s one example of how massage is going mainstream in the United States.

Thousands of Americans are getting rubbed the right way at work, health clubs, hotels, malls, airports, street fairs and at home.

“Massage is no longer perceived as illicit or a toy for the idle rich. It’s for everybody,” says Gene Arbetter, spokesman for the American Massage Therapy Assn. “It’s for the average worker. It’s for the weekend athlete, not just an Olympian.”

Tried It Once

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The association estimates that about 10% of Americans have tried professional massage at least once. Those kneaded regularly often work in high-pressure jobs that put kinks in their shoulders and backs.

“The body has a good self-regulating mechanism, but we, 20th-Century man, throw an awful lot of obstacles into that balance,” Arbetter says. “Cradling the phone between the ear and the shoulder, sitting in poor chairs, carrying a purse or gym bag on only one shoulder, falling asleep in front of the television can do things to the circulation and the muscle structure that are just not kind.”

Founded in 1943, the association’s membership has jumped 500% to about 7,500 members in the last five years. Most states don’t license massage therapists, so the association has developed a program of certification that requires members to spend at least six months at an approved school, including 500 hours of classroom time, Arbetter said.

The cost of a massage varies from $20 to $80 per hour, depending on the location and the therapist’s training, he says.

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“Massage doesn’t cure or treat, but what it does try to do is get some type of balance in the body by loosening tight muscles and allowing tensions on the opposite sides of the body to be more equal,” Arbetter says.

Sabina Vidunas gives the massages at Heinz. Like most of today’s practitioners, she has distanced herself from the image of the sleazy massage parlor and refers to herself as a massage therapist, not a masseuse. She studied massage for a year at the Swedish Institute in New York City after working as a registered nurse for five years.

The Heinz employees remain clothed as Vidunas kneads the upper body, including scalp and hands, in a sort of mini-massage that uses no oil.

“Everyone is affected by a busier life style,” Vidunas says. “It’s just taking 15 minutes out of your day to totally relax.”

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Once a Month

Priscilla Grden, a secretary at the company’s Heinz USA division, has scheduled at least one massage a month with Vidunas since April.

“It’s just a great, great feeling,” she says. “It just takes away all your tension.”

Massage is making headway in other corporate quarters. Therapist Jan Robbins says she “takes it to the people” with her company, Corporate Stressbusters, a sort of massage delivery service in San Francisco’s financial district, “a hotbed of stress.”

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When tense urban professionals beckon, Robbins shows up at their office with the equipment: a stool, a cushion and a pair of hands.

“You just whip out the chair and people sit down, close the phones, hit the lights, close the doors and get 15 minutes of peace and quiet,” Robbins says.

Robbins says most of her clients work for small companies, but some large corporations have shown interest in her service because of the growing cost of stress-induced illness.

“People are suffering from everything from headaches to heart disease and the traditional ways of dealing with these problems aren’t working,” Robbins says. “The claims for mental and emotional stress are skyrocketing.”

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Even in the offices of the State Department massage is a hit. Employees pay for the services of Bahaa Karra, whose company, Washington Health Systems, comes to the office basement twice a week to offer massages ranging from 15 minutes for $11 to an hour for $44.

“I’m booked full for two or three weeks in advance,” Karra says. “It is not easy to get an hour massage in the State Department.”

Nancy Gelman says she gives 15-minute massages in her portable chair at Jeffrey’s Hair Salon in Pittsburgh, often to clients “between their manicure and their hair.”

Carol Cadman, a massage therapist for 12 years in Petaluma, Calif., teaches the technique to nurses at the UC San Francisco.

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“The nurses do the real hands-on nurturing and healing work with people,” says Cadman, who believes the medical field fails to recognize the value of massage.

Hockey Team

The New Jersey Devils of the National Hockey League have their own massage therapist, who travels with the team.

“It facilitates injury rehabilitation, and some of the players feel it’s also preventive at times,” says team spokesman Dave Freed. “It helps to keep them loose and limber.”

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Practitioners also are making their way into the malls. Bob Watt opened Massage Works about three years ago in a plaza in Plantation, Fla., near Ft. Lauderdale.

Watt says business is so good he hopes to hire two additional therapists full-time and expand his office to include the empty store next door.

“We get all kinds of people, from 12 years old to 92,” he says. “Quite a majority of them are your average businessman down the street, the printer, the salesman, the car dealer, whatever.”

At the Phoenix and Dallas-Ft. Worth airports, frazzled fliers can drop into the Air Vita health club for a massage.

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“It makes a layover a lot easier,” says therapist Linda Wilson. “It’s a relief to come to a place and be able to relax for a little bit.”


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