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25 Science-Backed Ways to Change Your Life by Taking Better Care of Yourself
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Not only can a good massage enhance physical mobility,The effects of massage to the hamstring muscle group on range of motion. Corman, L.J., Cheateuvert, S.R., Weisberg, J. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. 1984;6(3):168-72. relieve pain,A Comparison of the Effects of 2 Types of Massage and Usual Care on Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Daniel C. Cherkin, Karen J. Sherman, Janet Kahn, et al. Annals of Internal Medicine. Jul 5, 2011; 155(1): 1–9.The effects of massage in patients with chronic tension headache. Puustjärvi, Airaksinen O, Pöntinen PJ. Acupuncture & Electrotherapeutics Research. 1990;15(2):159-62. and lower the bloodstream’s concentration of stress hormones,Massage reduces anxiety in child and adolescent psychiatric patients. Field, T., Morrow, C., Valdeon, C. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 1992 Jan;31(1):125-31.A Meta-Analysis of Massage Therapy Research. Moyer, C.A., Rounds, J., J.W. APA Psychological Bulletin. 2004 130(1): 3–18. getting a rubdown has also been shown to boost the brain’s production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin,Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Field, T., Hernandez-Reif, M., Diego, M. et al. International Journal of Neuroscience. 2005. Oct; 115(10):1397-413. bolster immunity,Massage therapy is associated with enhancement of the immune system’s cytotoxic capacity. Ironson G., Field T., Scafidi, F., et al. International Journal of Neuroscience. 1996 Feb;84(1-4):205-17. and improve sleep.The effect of massage therapy on the quality of sleep in breast cancer patients. Kashani F., Kashani P. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research. 2014 Mar;19(2):113-8. Which is why some say massage shouldn’t be considered just an indulgence—rather, it’s part of a healthy lifestyle, just like going for a run or eating an energy-boosting snack.

There are many other misconception out there too. Learn the latest facts so you can reap the many rewards of massage.

1. Massage is for so much more than just relaxation.

Yes, bringing your body and mind to a state of greater calm is a massage therapist’s objective. It’s what licensed massage therapist Gina Flores, founder of Essential Body Wisdom, calls “lowering the reticular alarm system.” In other words, it calms the sympathetic nervous system, which is often high-strung due to crazy-busy schedules and other life stressors. By using touch to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings the body back into a mode of resting and digesting, a massage therapist “helps the neurological system turn down its volume, diminish pain, and transition to a recovery state in which it can naturally heal itself,” Flores says.

But that’s not the only aim of a well-rounded rub-down. In addition to chilling you out, a proper massage is like spring cleaning for your muscles, says Wil Lewis, Exhale Spa’s national massage trainer. “When muscles are tired, they grab on to other muscles around them for support. Over the long term, they glue together, hardening and losing their ability to function,” he explains. A massage therapist works to knead out knots and isolate muscles from one another, which brings back range of motion—you know, that “wow my shoulders feel so much freer” feeling that comes once you pull yourself off the massage table an hour later.

Add to this the reduction of muscle spasms, the forging of new neural pathways to keep the brain sharp, and removing built-up tension, and it’s clear to see that there’s so much more to massage than just ahhhh.

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2. “No pain, no gain” is insane.

Given that a session of bodywork costs about as much as a five-class pass to some boutique fitness studios, you’re gonna want to feel results. Unfortunately many people misconstrue pain as evidence that a massage is working. Gritting your teeth under the pressure of too-rigorous kneading or asking a massage therapist to go deeper only adds to the body’s tension levels, further hardening those muscles that desperately need to soften.

See, digging into muscles is like those science experiments in elementary school where you combined cornstarch with water: The more you prodded the substance (or muscle), it hardened, yet when you stopped, it softened.

This property is called thixotropy (try saying that three times fast!). In less-scientific terms, it means that too much force will make muscle molecules cling together and almost harden, Lewis says. “But apply a slower force, and the molecules easily slip apart, allowing the muscles to open, soften, and separate.”

Although ferocious digging risks irritating sore muscles even further, bruising, and jacking up stress (that’s right, a massage can lead to stress), the goal isn’t to turn muscle fibers to putty. It’s to apply just the right amount of pressure to kickstart that relaxation response, loosen and lengthen muscles, and release tension rather than add to it.

3. It doesn’t matter if you’re not sore or tense.

Likely because so many consider massage a form of pampering, we don’t realize that regular rubdowns are an important component of health maintenance. “If you wait until you’re injured to seek out a massage therapist, it’s much more difficult to restore your body to health than if you’d been ensuring your tissues were flexible, pliable, and taken care of before the pain or soreness settled in,” Lewis says. Think of massages as preventive care or, as Lewis suggests, like a lifestyle choice—no different from making a point to exercise on a regular basis so as to offset your risk of metabolic diseases and other side effects of inactivity.

So how often should you ideally get a massage? Flores advises anywhere between twice a month to once every few months for folks not suffering from an illness or in need of acute care. “My job as a massage therapist is to facilitate the body’s natural healing response. If you’re experiencing lots of stressed or are injured, by all means come in weekly. But clients shouldn’t have to come in to see me once a week for the rest of their lives.”

4. Massage doesn’t have to bust your budget.

Let’s face it, spa treatments can be pricey, and unfortunately few insurance companies cover massage unless it’s part of physical therapy for an injury or illness. However there are some ways you can reduce the financial burden of treating your muscles on a regular basis. Licensed massage therapist Denise Williams, founder of Much Kneaded Massage, suggests taking advantage of your healthcare company’s flexible spending account (talk to your healthcare provider to see if you have this option) and obtaining a prescription from your doctor that will enable you to deduct a certain percentage of the cost from your taxes as medical expenses. (Find more of Williams’s money-saving massage advice here.)

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5. Pre-gaming to “loosen up” isn’t such a good idea.

A glass or two of vino may seem like just the thing to nix any nerves about letting a stranger touch your naked body and really relax—heck, some spas even offer wine! But hold off before grabbing a corkscrew.

“Alcohol and massage are a no-go,” Lewis says. “If someone is intoxicated, a massage will speed up circulation so much that the alcohol will flush into the tissues and hit the blood faster and stronger. The body also filters it faster, so instead of a rush of drunkenness, you just get sick.” Not as fun as we’d hoped…

6. Don’t just lie there!

While you might want to close your eyes and enjoy yourself for the full time you’ve allotted your muscles to be tended to, there’s no harm in chatting up your therapist, especially when it comes to communicating how much force you’re comfortable with and which areas of your body need more attention.

“Your massage therapist is not a psychic,” Lewis says. “Their only way of ensuring that you are having a great massage with the correct pressure and detail is through feedback.” No need to have a full conversation, but don’t be shy about speaking up!

7. Feeling turned on doesn’t mean you’re weird.

When you stimulate the muscles, relax, and give into the pleasurable aspects of a massage, sometimes you get a little, well, excited. First off, this isn’t uncommon, so don’t intentionally try to avoid this, or else the massage won’t feel good or provide any benefits, Lewis says. (But do respect that the massage therapist isn’t there to cater to any sexual fantasies.)

Instead, know that any trained therapist is equipped to navigate this situation professionally by proceeding respectfully or giving the client a moment to calm down, he says. Provided all parties involved act appropriately (keep in mind there are legal boundaries barring sexual conduct between a client and therapist), Lewis adds that there’s no harm in feeling nurtured and euphoric in your body.

8. Massage doesn’t make you ill—but you may feel like it.

Because massage releases free radicals that have built up inside muscular knots, some people may feel a bit sick a day or so after a session. “We relieve the tension and release the toxins, and now the immune system has to deal with it,” Lewis explains. If this happens to you, he advises popping an NSAID (like aspirin or ibuprofen) or dropping some Emergen-C or Airborne into your water bottle following a massage treatment to help reduce inflammation.

The Takeaway

With numerous body and mind benefits, a massage is much more than a luxury experience or indulgent episode of self-pampering. Go as often as you can and wish to, as even a session every few months with a pro is totally worth the cost.