Benefits Beyond the Table
Massage does more than make you feel good. Its health benefits
By Laurie Davies
Photos by Jeff Newton
Nothing makes oohs and ahhs tumble off the tongue like a
massage. But massage therapy does more than make you feel good in
the moment. In fact, experts agree that the mental and emotional
benefits of regular massage therapy last
long after you're off the table.
Have you ever intuitively looked at your spouse and known
something was wrong? Or had your hair stand on end when someone was
following you? "There are aspects of the mind-body connection that
are hard to verbalize, but when you experience it, you know it,"
says Judy Stahl, LMT, president-elect of the American Massage
Therapy Association. "As research unfolds, it becomes clear that
there is a mind-body connection and that appropriate touch heals
people mentally and emotionally," Stahl says. "Everyone is finally
getting it." Stahl says massage therapy can help clients
simultaneously experience the physical health benefits of massage
while enjoying its proven anxiety-lowering, pleasure-increasing
properties. "There's something about massage that taps into our
intuition. It helps us know things from the inside out rather than
the outside in," Stahl says.
Our ancient ancestors got "stressed out" when faced by a
saber-toothed tiger or a savage who would kill over a basket of
berries. They either fought or ran away, immediately burning off
the adrenaline and cortisol mobilized by the body.
Today's battles may be more benign, but there's nothing
civilized about the body's unhealthy buildup of hormones when we're
stuck in traffic or meeting a work deadline. "When we don't burn
adrenaline and cortisol off, they harm body tissue. The ancient
response that saved our lives is now the thing that's killing us,"
says Anne Williams, LMT, education program director for Associated
Bodywork and Massage Professionals. In fact, she says, pent-up
levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol can lead to sleeplessness,
headaches and digestive problems.
Enter, massage therapy. Massage has been shown to decrease
cortisol in the body. This allows the body to enter a
rest-and-recovery mode, an effect that lingers long after the
massage is over. In fact, Williams says, massage triggers a host of
brain chemistry responses that result in lasting feelings of stress
relief and improved mood.
Experts agree that regular massage has cumulative effects. "The
results of massage build on each other," Williams says. This can
lead to an ability to relax
tense muscles more easily over time.
"It has been shown that athletes who have fatigued muscles
recover better with massage as opposed to not having massage,"
Williams says. Anecdotally, she suggests that people feel better
and more relaxed in the days after massage based on the same
principle. "You don't just feel better right now. You feel better
for a period of time after the massage. Connective tissues are
being realigned. You can move more freely and feel less pain and
We've all met people who felt comfortable in their own skin, no
matter what their size or shape. But what if you're not one of
them? What if you view your body's bulges and blemishes as
stumbling blocks to self-acceptance?
After 21 years professionally in massage therapy, Stahl is
convinced that the No. 1 core benefit of massage therapy is its
accompanying sense of safety and self-acceptance. "With appropriate
touch comes a sense of personal esteem that people don't
necessarily get anyplace else in their lives," Stahl says. "If
massage therapy is delivered appropriately, you're going to have a
heightened sense of safety in your own skin."
As a result, you may open up and talk to others more. You may
walk into the workplace with confidence. Or you may be better
positioned to battle eating disorders, depression or other mental
health challenges. Studies at the Touch Research Institute at the
University of Miami School of Medicine examining the positive
effects of massage on depression and eating disorders seem to
bolster this assertion.
"Massage somehow makes you literally feel happier and more
accepted," Stahl says. "I would stake my life on it."