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If you are looking for a new career direction, consider physical therapy.

Fitness instructor Maria Pontillo is becoming a physical therapist because it will allow her to continue her passion of helping people through physical activity and it will pay her a decent salary. 

The 25-year-old PT student at Florida International University in Miami already holds an undergraduate degree in exercise physiology, but starting salaries for physiologists can be as low as $12 an hour.

“I wanted to earn a decent wage,’’ said Pontillo, who is working her way through PT school as a personal trainer and a dance instructor.

Help is Wanted, Pay is Good

This PT student is looking in the right place. Physical therapists, who help patients regain and improve their movement, are doing well. The median salary for a physical therapist today is $75,000, according to the American Physical Therapy Association.

Furthermore, there are plenty of jobs available. In mid-July the President’s Council of Economic Advisers listed physical therapy in a report as being among health professions generating large job growth during the next seven years.
The report found that the increased demand stems largely from an aging population that will require care at home, in nursing care facilities, and in in-patient and outpatient settings.

An increased prevalence of chronic conditions, such as diabetes and obesity is also fueling the demand for physical therapists, says Scott Ward, president of the American Physical Therapy Association.

“We expect that as our nation ages the demand will continue to grow," Ward said.

But becoming a physical therapist requires much more than just having an interest in fitness. The old entrance requirements of a master’s degree in PT have disappeared during the past few years. Nine-five percent of PT schools require students to obtain a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree as a condition of entry to the profession. Instead of two years of graduate education, most students now attend school for three years. 

An alternative to entering the physical therapy profession is to become a physical therapy assistant. PTAs earn an average of $42,000 after graduating from a two-year community college or technical school program. PTA’s can treat patients, but cannot diagnose or do evaluations.

The physical therapy profession has gained more stature in the last decade as most states now allow PT’s to treat without a medical doctor's prescription. Physical therapists are also increasingly working in non-traditional work settings, such as job sites to help prevent work-related injuries and to decrease recovery time and other related costs for those already hurt.

“Work site modification and fitness programs can help prevent injuries while immediate care can help keep an acute injury from becoming a chronic problem,’’ says Nancy White, associate director of practice for the APTA.

White says technological developments are allowing physical therapists new and better tools to help their patients. The use of robotic technology for patients with spinal cord injuries or strokes, and computerized prosthetic devices for patients with amputations are only two examples of new and innovative areas of practice, she says. 

PT student Lindsey Lano, 24, who attends Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, said she likes the fact that the profession allows therapists to spend a lot of time with patients and make a difference in their lives. Another plus, she can pick the community where she wants to live and find a job. “There are people everywhere who need help,’’ she says.

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