When was the last time you treated yourself to a massage? Do you incorporate massage into your regular routine? Or is it a splurge, something you just do rarely, as a way to treat yourself? As part of our Full Year of Resolutions, today we are talking about our More Than Healthy Tip #34, which is all about the many health benefits of massage.
Massage: Extravagant or essential?
I’m going to be honest. For most of my life, I fell into that second category. Getting a massage was a splurge. I’d maybe get one once a year. Every time I did, I’d think to myself, “I really should be doing this more often,” as it felt like a very healthy, healing experience. But life’s pace was at such a breakneck speed, I never made it happen.
Until recently. That breakneck speed took a toll, especially on my neck. For about the last year, it’s had a pretty consistent kink, and the pain travels down into my shoulder. I’d wake up sore each morning, and the pain would intensify as I managed the stress of the day. It was a friend’s referral to a massage therapist that changed it all for me… “It may not be the most relaxing experience, but she will fix you!”
Massage as prevention
I decided it was time to be ‘fixed.’ At that first appointment, the massage therapist kindly let me know that I truly was a bit of a mess. My back was so tense, and my muscles and tendons so tight, she couldn’t believe I hadn’t yet experienced an injury while exercising. I’m fairly active, and have never had to worry about injury before. I know from watching friends that recovering from an injury like that is no fun. Plus, it’s costly – did you know that sports-related injuries cost us well over $20 billion a year in the U.S.? The average inpatient visit for a sports injury is $6,039. And that doesn’t include the cost of rehab! I definitely wanted to be proactive in injury prevention.
Now all I can say is, why in the world did I wait so long? My weekly massages have become an integral part of my health regimen. And it has made all the difference! I’ve only got one body. I try hard to take good care of it. I exercise a lot and drink lots of water. I’m incorporating many of Carla and David’s awesome More Than Healthy tips into my life. But there’s lots of room for improvement, plus I’m getting older, and I’ve taken all that my body does for me every day pretty much for granted. Making massage a priority has made a huge difference in my overall health.
The health benefits of massage have been very specific for me. In all honesty, I think it is one of the very best things I’ve ever done for my health.
Let’s take a look at 5 of the best benefits of regular massage:
Benefit # 1: Massage helps in recovery of stiff and sore muscles
David first started getting regular massages when he was doing triathlons. The training for this kind of competitive exercise is brutal. You have to incorporate swimming, biking, and running into your weekly workout schedule, and it often means doing two sports a day. Your muscles and tendons get incredibly stiff and sore. That weekly massage made a huge difference in his recovery and ability to compete.
Muscle tissue and why it matters
It might seem obvious that a good massage helps relieve stiffness and soreness. But let’s talk about why. It helps if we understand a little bit about muscle tissue. Muscle fibers run all throughout our body in different directions, layered on top of each other from our head down to our toes. These muscles are why we can bend, twist, and move. They’re meant to be strong and used often. They should also be pliable.
Our current lifestyle, which so often includes sitting at a computer all day, is far from ideal for our muscles. We quickly lose our flexibility, which affects our mobility. The muscle fibers can start to stick to each other and become adhered. This creates a hard, lumpy feeling we call a muscle ‘knot.’
These knots are very common, but as I’ve learned from personal experience, they’re far from harmless. Chronic stress on our muscles creates micro-tears in our muscle tissue. This in turn creates scar tissue. If left untreated, the muscle tissue continues to lose elasticity and causes harm that is hard to reverse. (That was the road I was headed down before I incorporated regular massage.)
Massage and muscle regeneration
Studies show that massage can enhance the process of muscle fiber regeneration. We’ve all likely heard about lactic acid, commonly believed to be the cause of muscle pain when it accumulates after a hard workout. However, now we know that lactic acid is moved out of the muscles almost immediately as the blood flows during exercise. But it may have more to do with neutrophils and cytokines than lactic acid. Science confirms that muscle recovery is aided when inflammation-causing cells get squeezed out of the muscle tissue – which is what happens during massage.
Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering used a custom-designed robotic system to deliver consistent compressive forces to mice’s leg muscles that had been damaged. They found that this mechanical loading rapidly cleared immune cells (or neutrophils) out of the severely injured muscle tissue. This process also removed inflammatory cytokines released by neutrophils from the muscles leading to a faster process of muscle fiber regeneration.
In some cases they found that mechanical stimulation doubled the rate of muscle regeneration and reduced tissue scarring over the course of only two weeks. This explains why massage is so helpful in muscle recovery.
All the studies are interesting. But I know from my own experience that massage helps me feel a lot better and to recover more quickly after strenuous exercise.
Benefit #2: Massage therapy reduces stress and increases relaxation
This is another obvious benefit of massage, but we may not realize just how important it is to our wellbeing. In this week’s video, David and Carla show their massage chair. It can be the most stressful day ever, but after even a few minutes in this chair, the stress leaves and the body begins to relax. David tries to spend time in the massage chair every day, as he always feels better afterward.
Studies show that massage reliably reduces stress and increases relaxation. They proved it by monitoring changes in high frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV), as well as participants’ feedback on relaxation and stress levels. All massage protocols tested consistently produced significantly less stressed, more relaxed “psychophysiological relaxation.”
Stress takes a real toll on our health
It’s easy to underestimate stress and the havoc it wreaks on our health. Isn’t stress a normal part of life? The short answer is that yes, some stress is normal, and even necessary. But the lifestyle many of us live is filled with chronic stress, and a constant barrage of stressors becomes very problematic.
Stress has been shown to be a significant immunosuppressor. The effects of stress on our nervous systems have been studied for over 50 years, so we know quite a bit about this. People who are frequently exposed to stress or who live or work in stressful environments have a much higher likelihood of getting sick. Stress is the triggering factor for many diseases and disorders. Many studies link the role that stress plays with the immune system. It’s been proven that stress mediators are able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and weaken the immune system. Stress is directly linked to heart disease, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, and the endocrine system, just to name a few.
Studies also show that stress can actually cause structural changes in the brain. Chronic stress leads to atrophy of brain mass and decrease in brain weight. All of this affects cognition and memory. I don’t know about you, but I need as much healthy brain cognition as I can get!
Put down the Xanax and get a massage
Although not a replacement for necessary medical treatment, massage is increasingly offered as standard treatment for a wide range of medical conditions. Reducing stress is one of the best preventative measures you can take for your health, and massage is a very healthy way to reduce stress and allow your whole self to relax.
Benefit #3: Massage improves circulation
To really understand this particular health benefit of massage, we need to know a bit about the circulatory system. This system is comprised of two parts: The cardiovascular and lymphatic systems. Both work together to detoxify the body. As nutrient-rich blood travels away from your heart through the capillaries, nutrients and wastes are exchanged in adjacent tissue cells. Fluid taken from the blood (or lymph) transports waste to your lymph nodes. They then filter waste and return fluid to your bloodstream.
When your circulatory systems aren’t working properly, your blood flow is impaired and your heart has to work extra hard to do its job. This leads to frightening health problems like heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, dementia, diabetes, eye disease, cirrhosis, influenza…and the list goes on.
Massage helps with circulation by stimulating the flow of blood and lymph vessels. It’s kind of like a tube of toothpaste. When you apply pressure to the tube, the toothpaste comes out more easily. Studies show that the pressure applied during repeated massage helps get that blood flowing in all the healthy ways. Leg massage can even prevent varicose veins for this very reason.
Benefit #4: Massage lowers heart rate and blood pressure
If massage helps lower stress, it follows that it helps lower heart rate and blood pressure as well. Almost half of all adults in the United States have hypertension, or high blood pressure. Of these, only 1 in 4 adults with hypertension have their condition under control. High blood pressure puts you at risk for heart disease and stroke, leading causes of death in America.
What causes high blood pressure?
Why is high blood pressure so common? It’s caused by a variety of factors, including lifestyle choices like poor diet, being too sedentary, obesity, smoking, and drinking. It’s also influenced by stress levels. Stress elevates your heart rate and causes spikes in blood pressure levels. These increases can be dramatic. But even temporary spikes in your blood pressure can damage blood vessels, heart, and kidneys that is similar to the damage done by long-term high blood pressure.
Multiple studies support the claim that massage therapy helps with hypertension. One study showed that deep tissue massage used in combination with soothing music helped reduce blood pressure and reduced heart rate. Another study showed that Swedish massage was particularly helpful in lowering blood pressure results.
A study that included 50 pre-hypertensive women found conclusively that blood pressure was significantly lower during massage, and stayed lower even 72 hours after massage. Study findings stated that massage therapy is a safe, effective, applicable, and cost-effective intervention in controlling blood pressure.
By looking at pre and post-massage blood pressure levels and heart rates in multiple studies, results were consistent and clear. Because of their ability to help eliminate stress, massages help keep heart rates and blood pressure healthy. A good massage promotes feelings of well-being. But more than that, massages help decrease cortisol, the stress hormone, while increasing serotonin and dopamine, the feel-good chemicals in our body.
Benefit #5: Massage improves immune function
We’ve already touched on this a bit, as it overlaps with a few of the health benefits of massage we’ve discussed above. But let’s explore this amazing benefit some more. You might not think of massage as a way to boost immunity. But it’s scientifically proven to improve the immune system in measurable ways.
A groundbreaking study on the link between massage and immunity had participants fitted with intravenous catheters for blood sampling. Blood samples were collected before, all throughout, and after a 45-minute massage therapy treatment.
The results were compelling. Participants experienced significant positive changes in lymphocytes, the cells that help the immune system fight off harmful substances within the body. It also caused a large decrease in the hormone believed to increase the stress hormone cortisol, as well as in actual levels of cortisol itself.
Also, massage reduces pain. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, pain has measurable negative effects on the immune system. Because of massage’s ability to effectively decrease pain, it makes it easier for the body to fight off illness.
Research shows that massage not only feels good, it is also good for you. Studies have found that massage may be helpful for:
- Digestive disorders
- Sports injuries
- Soft tissue, muscle, nerve, joint pain
Plus, massage is fabulous for mental health. A good massage makes you feel cared for and comfortable. Your mind is directly connected to the body. A healthy mind helps promote a healthy body.
Elevate your quality of life
I asked my amazing massage therapist what she thought the greatest benefit of massage was, and I loved her answer. “Oh!” she responded thoughtfully. “There are just so many incredible benefits. I think it affects everything. Your entire quality of life is elevated. You’re happier, lighter, better. I wish everyone could get a massage every week. The world would be better for it.” – Susan Kofford, LMT.
She also told me that Bob Hope, the very successful and memorable comedian, singer, actor, and performer received a therapeutic massage every single day for 63 years! He felt like it was integral to his health and to his ability to make others happy. It just so happens that he lived to be 100 years old. Coincidence? I think not!
The health benefits of massage – it’s more than self-care
Gone are the days when massages were just for vacations and spa days. Even the medical world recognizes that massage isn’t just a luxury. The health benefits of massage are scientifically measurable. Massage therapy keeps our bodies healthy, pliable, and oxygenated.
I recognize that it can be hard to find the time and resources for regular massages. But if you can, the benefits are so well worth it. Regular massage is one of the best forms of preventative medicine. In some cases, your insurance will pay for massage. And did you know that massage therapy is eligible for reimbursement (some require a doctor’s note) through most FSA and HSA plans?
Have you experienced the healing benefits of a great massage? We always love to hear about your experiences on your journey to optimal health. We also love to answer any questions you might have. You’re welcome to leave them below or at any of our More Than Healthy social media platforms.
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