By Rebecca Jones
This article is from the Autumn 2012 issue of Body Sense magazine.
You know all about the relaxation benefits of massage—there’s no better tonic for tired muscles or flagging spirits. But you may not know about some of the other amazing benefits of massage, especially when it’s a regular regimen. It has a lot of positive payoffs you may never have thought about.
Massage Can Make You a More Productive Worker
Researchers have found that massage tends to lower the body’s production of cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system. Block cortisol and the body’s so-called “natural killer cells” are freer to attack any incoming germs before they can establish a beachhead in your body. Along with a health-saving regimen of hand washing and preventive care, regular massage can go a long way toward keeping you sniffle-free. And fewer colds mean fewer sick days, which means you can get more done.
Massage Can Make You a Better automobile Driver
Your driver’s ed teacher was right: never, ever change lanes without looking both in the rearview mirror and physically looking over your shoulder. Yes, twist and turn that neck for safety’s sake. Most rearview mirrors have a blind spot, and countless accidents occur every year when drivers unknowingly move into the path of another car. One study from the United Kingdom found that the number of crashes caused by blind spots rose 50 percent between 2009 and 2011, probably because of a thickening of the metal structures between the front and back windows in an effort to make cars structurally safer. It makes the cars safer, but it also makes the blind spots larger.
Now think about what happens when a stiff neck makes turning your head painful. Fortunately, a massage can improve blood flow to the stiff area and will provide the nutrients needed for quick recovery. Your neck will feel better, and you’ll drive more safely as a result.
Massage Can Help You Lose Weight
Starting an exercise regimen takes mental discipline, but it also takes a willingness to endure some pain. That’s because after any strenuous workout, muscles get inflamed, and that leads to soreness. Suffering through a bout of aching arms, calves, shoulders, and thighs might just drive the faint of heart back to the couch.
Researchers at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in California and the McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, recently studied men’s muscles after they exercised on stationary bicycles. They found that when the men had their legs massaged after a workout, they suffered less soreness the next day. The reason: massage seems to inhibit the activity of cytokines, which are proteins that cause inflammation, while it promotes the growth of mitochondria, which produce energy in the cells.
Less soreness means fewer excuses to skip a workout, which can help you stick to your exercise routine and see the results you seek.
Massage Can Make You a Better Dancer ... Or Tennis Player ... Or Golfer
The reason has to do with proprioception—the body’s innate sense of the relative position of all its parts. Police conducting field sobriety tests may ask drivers they suspect of being under the influence of alcohol to close their eyes and touch their nose. People with normal proprioception can usually do this pretty accurately. Those who’ve had too much to drink cannot, because alcohol impairs proprioception.
Some massage therapists are trained in an advanced form of flexibility therapy called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), which can help clients learn safer, more natural ways to move their bodies. But even basic massage techniques have been shown to improve the mind-muscle link, therefore increasing an individual’s fine and gross motor control. Massage alone won’t earn you a spot on Dancing with the Stars, but it can help you be more adept and ditch your two left feet.
Massage Can Make Food Taste Better
OK, it won’t technically make the food taste any different, but it certainly can improve your digestion. Who relishes a feast when it’s followed by indigestion and a bloated feeling?
Massage has been shown to encourage the release of enzymes that break down food once it’s been consumed. This not only makes digestion easier, but also increases the absorption of nutrients. Massage also encourages the release of antioxidants, which neutralize acids in the stomach. Finally, it increases peristalsis, the involuntary contraction of the muscles that moves food through the intestines, reducing the chance of constipation.
If you’re prone to indigestion or abdominal discomfort, tell your massage therapist. He or she may know specific massage techniques that can be especially beneficial to you.
Massage Can Lower Blood Pressure
Massage cannot magically unclog narrowed arteries or reverse cardiovascular disease, but it can help relieve stress, and managing stress is an important step in controlling blood pressure.
A number of studies point to the ability of gentle, relaxing Swedish massage to lower blood pressure. For instance, a 2011 Iranian study looked at 75 prehypertensive women. Some of the women received 10–15 minutes of Swedish massage three times a week for 10 sessions, while those in the control group did not. Based on the results, investigators concluded “massage therapy was a safe, effective, applicable, and cost-effective intervention.”
In 2010, researchers from Dillard University in Louisiana wondered whether therapeutic chair massage and instruction in diaphragmatic breathing might help lower blood pressure in African-American women. This is an especially at-risk group, with an estimated 44 percent suffering from hypertension, according to the American Heart Association. The study found decreased systolic blood pressure levels in these women for a week following a massage.
Warning: not all massage is likely to lower blood pressure. Some types, such as trigger point or sports massage, may actually increase blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, talk to your doctor about how massage can fit into your overall wellness strategy.
Massage Can Make You smile
You probably leave each massage session with a smile on your face, but you may be surprised to learn just how long it can last. Evidence suggests that massage therapy can relieve symptoms of depression, and, in turn, perhaps coax a grin during tough times.
In 2010, Taiwanese researchers investigated randomized controlled trials of massage therapy in depressed patients. Based on the results, they concluded that massage therapy has “potentially significant effects” in alleviating depression. The findings, reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, indicate that the improved emotional mood brought on by massage might be due to stress reduction and relaxation, by bonding between therapist and client, or possibly by promoting the release of oxytocin, a hormone noted for its ability to induce feelings of optimism and increased self-esteem.
More study is needed to determine just why massage seems to be such an effective antidepressant, but this much is clear: massage can put a smile on your face, and that’s better than a frown any day.
Rebecca Jones is a Denver-area freelancer and frequent Body Sense contributor. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.