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Five Gold Medal Reasons Olympic Athletes Get Massage Therapy

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During the Rio Olympics, there was a lot of discussion about massage therapy and how many Olympic athletes incorporate regular massage as an integral part of their hard work and training. What do they know that keeps them strong and healthy through all their years of practice?

Sports Massage is their “Secret Weapon”

Research shows that massage therapy can benefit athletes of all fitness levels, and Olympic Athletes are no exception. So how can a massage strategy keep both the Olympic and average athlete strong and pain free?

1. Reduce DOMS

DOMS is Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness which is an ongoing problem for every athlete. Inflammation is one of the reasons an athlete’s overused muscles ache 48 hours after strenuous activity. Massage will increase the blood flow to the muscles to speed healing and reduce toxins. Combine this with gentle, low-stress activity and the pain goes away.

2. Increase Agility

Agility, the ability to move quickly in another direction, is part of most Olympic Athletes’ requirements. And this agility can be improved with a massage focused on critical stress points, both before and after the action. In fact, some studies have shown that a shorter massage on only the specific muscle groups was more effective than the longer, more relaxing Swedish Massage.

3. Injury Prevention

Injuries are often prevented with a short, pre-activity Sports Massage, tailored to the particular muscle group that will be stressed. Tendons and ligaments are relaxed and more likely to stretch than tear, while blood flow keeps the harmful chemicals from building as fast.

4. Speed Healing

The human body is an amazing machine with the ability to heal itself when provided with the right tools. Massage improves circulation which allows this fast healing while carrying away the chemicals that cause muscle damage. Combine massage with healthy eating which provides the proper fuel, and this human-machine runs (and heals) smoothly and quickly.

5. Reduce Inflammation

Inflammation is the body’s immune response to injury, infection, or toxic chemicals. It’s the localized buildup of white blood cells, dead red blood cells, and bacteria, which cause that area to redden, swell, become hot, and is often painful. It’s a sign that something is wrong (both good and bad), and will usually clear up over time. However, a massage after strenuous exercise will reduce the inflammation quickly, and allow the healing to occur sooner.

So take advantage of the secret Olympic athletes know and include the Sports Massage benefits as part of your personal workout plan. You’ll get better results and enjoy your activities more than ever. That’s a gold medal reason to incorporate massage therapy into your routine.

Massage and Weight Loss

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Weight Loss and Bodywork | Helping You Meet Your Goals
By Genevieve P. Charet

Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2010. Copyright 2010. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.

Massage–anything this good must be fattening, right? Wrong! Scientists now confirm what massage therapists have always known: massage can be a powerful and effective weight-loss tool. By improving your body’s resilience, aiding muscle nutrition and flexibility, and supporting your mental and emotional well-being, massage can take your weight-loss plan to a whole new level.

The relationship between massage and weight loss is the result of many subtle improvements working together, including better injury prevention and healing.

Jeff Wooten, founder of YourBodyMechanic.com, explains: “Massage helps to heal existing injuries by breaking down scar tissue and other adhesions. This creates a more functional muscle and improves joint integrity.” Massage therapists also work to improve your flexibility and range of motion. This makes you less likely to hurt yourself, meaning more productive and pain-free hours in the gym. But the benefits don’t end there.

When you receive a massage, you’re directly impacting the circulatory system. By constantly moving blood to body tissues, your massage therapist increases the amount of oxygen and nutrients your muscles receive. This soothing cycle eases you into much-needed rest and relaxation time.

Deneen Rhode, a massage therapy instructor who teaches fitness classes, says, “The qualitative style of Swedish massage relaxes the nervous system and takes the body into what is known as the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic state is very restorative to the body–it is where the body needs to go to heal itself.” When you accomplish this through massage, it means you’ll need less recovery time between workouts and that you can move your fitness routine full speed ahead.

Jeff Mann, the regional manager for Cortiva Institute Schools of Massage Therapy, knows this firsthand. With experience as both a massage therapist and personal trainer, he has seen the way massage can help clients drop pounds and keep them off. “Massage to weight loss is like the padding on a steering wheel–you can do without it, but it makes it a lot easier and more comfortable to hang on to.”

Make It Work For You

Losing weight isn’t easy. Thankfully, it’s simple to incorporate massage into the healthy lifestyle you’re building. It’s a good idea to have a special consultation with your massage therapist about your new goals and fitness plan so that treatments can be customized to your body’s specific needs.

Meredith Nathan, director of massage at Pulling Down the Moon in Chicago, says there are some specific questions you should be prepared to answer. For example, “If you’re following an exercise routine, how has it affected your body? Are there any particular areas of tension or discomfort? Where do you tend to gain weight first? How is your digestive health? Is your lifestyle relaxed or stressful?” The more information you can provide your therapist, the better your results will be–and this extends to your medical history. During your intake process, inform your massage therapist about any health problems, surgeries, medications, and even recent minor illnesses you’ve had. Anything your doctor needs to know, your massage therapist needs to know as well.

”Generally, massage on a healthy [client] should be no more that 90 minutes; 60 minutes is the most common,” Rhode says. Weekly massages are ideal, but you can reap plenty of benefits from monthly visits, too. Your massage therapist will work with you to set a specific schedule of appointments that fits with your workout routine, as well as your finances. Don’t be concerned if your MT wants to see you more often at the beginning of your plan–this is normal, and helps him or her to get to know your body’s way of handling stress and exertion.

Don’t Be Shy

While it’s natural for anyone to feel a little self-conscious at first about undressing for a massage, overweight clients often have major anxieties about disrobing. If you’ve put off massage therapy because you’re embarrassed about your body shape, take heart: massage therapists are sensitive to your concerns and don’t want you to feel ashamed. Thom Lobe, MD, founder and director of Beneveda Medical Group in Beverly Hills, says, “Massage therapists are just that–therapists. They are used to seeing all shapes, sizes, and conditions of the body. A well-trained massage therapist has an entirely clinical perspective, no different than any other health-care worker. The fact is, when I give a massage…what the body looks like isn’t even in my conscious thoughts.”

Throughout the course of a massage, clients are discretely draped under a sheet, with the therapist only uncovering the body part being worked on. Of course, you can always wear swim attire or undergarments during your massage, although they can hamper the full therapeutic effects your therapist offers. Remember, rest easy in the knowledge that your massage therapist has been trained to nurture and help you without passing judgment. Nathan adds that massage therapists “do not expect to work on bodies that are already in perfect health; rather, we get excited about supporting our client’s journey toward better health.”

The Power of Touch

While it’s easy to overlook your emotional health when planning a new diet and exercise regimen, it’s the primary factor determining your weight-loss success. Along the path to fitness, the role of massage in supporting your mental and emotional health may be a critical component. Massage is a calorie-free reward; a way to treat yourself without guilt. Your massage therapist also acts as a cheerleader who celebrates your victories with you and helps keep you positive and committed.

“The more professionals you have on the team, the better,” Wooten says. “The worst thing to do, in most cases, is attempt to get into shape on your own.” Adding a massage therapist to your weight-loss plan is a great way to tell yourself just how serious you are about taking this step.

Massage is a powerful way to love, respect, and nurture yourself. When you love yourself, you won’t engage in unhealthy lifestyle choices. Rhode calls this “the power of touch”–the unique ability that touch has to make us feel safe, comfortable, and at peace. “Very often, those who are obese or overweight become less social and isolate themselves. They become disconnected from others. They may experience less touch in their lives in general,” Rhode says. This disconnect continues a downward spiral of low self-worth and unhealthy living. Massage is a great way to fill in that gap and rebuild a healthy life from the ground up. “I’ve learned that there are no perfect bodies,” Nathan says. “All bodies are unique and have unique needs. All bodies deserve to be nurtured.”

Regular massage is all about reconnecting with your body and getting back into yourself. As you continue to take time out to relax and care for your body through regular appointments, you’ll naturally become more aware of your body’s needs and more motivated to meet them. It’s all part of a greater picture of health and fitness, one that Wooten says, “is a journey, and not a destination.”

Your massage therapist wants to help you build a bridge between mind and body that will last a lifetime. So update your massage from guilty pleasure status to indispensable health habit, and reap the benefits in the form of a fitter, happier you. You’ve earned it.

Genevieve P. Charet is a Chicago-based freelance writer, copy consultant, and food blogger. To read more about her, visit www.genevievecharet.com.

A Sobering Experience

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When Brendan C., a Chicago-based marathon runner and coach and recovering alcoholic with 20 years of sobriety under his belt, went for a recent massage with his regular therapist, the muscles in his calves and lower back were intractable. His therapist asked him what was going on. Brendan said he had no idea.

The therapist continued working on him. As she did, Brendan began to feel profoundly sad. He realized he was finally feeling the stress fall-out of the recent break-up of a long-time relationship. Only then did his muscles begin to release. “That’s the thing with addicts,” he says, wryly. “We don’t always know what’s going on with us.”

This emotional disassociation can often be a double whammy for those struggling with addictions. “We live in a culture that doesn’t do a good job teaching anyone how to relax, both physically and mentally,” says Jennifer Broadwell, DOM, ADS, an acupuncturist and director of the Wellness Spot, an integrative health center affiliated with the Florida House Experience, a rehab facility based in Deerfield Beach, Florida.

However, this could be changing. More and more, centers such as the Wellness Spot offer a host of non-talk therapies, including massage, as part of their recovery programs. In fact, massage is one of the most popular offerings at the Wellness Spot, with the six therapists doing approximately 200 massages a week.

The center also offers acupuncture, chiropractic services, yoga, meditation and nutritional counseling. Through all of these modalities, but especially massage, “Clients can now feel what it’s like to be present in their own bodies,” says Broadwell.

The Long Road

Recovery is a process, and a difficult one. “Often, the client cannot even articulate what is going on,” Broadwell says. “Because massage is not a talk therapy, it can meet them wherever they are, even if they don’t have the skills to tell us.”

Maureen Schwehr, NMD, a naturopathic physician and craniosacral instructor who works at the integrative clinic at Sierra Tucson, an in-patient rehab facility near Tucson, Arizona, says bodywork offerings are invaluable to the rehab clients, most all of whom choose to participate in them.The massage offerings at Sierra Tucson include Swedish massage, myofascial release, zero balancing, shiatsu, SomatoEmotional Release, and Chi Nei Tsang, a type of Chinese abdomen massage.

Schwehr says that most conventional therapy for recovery focuses on the mind. Once you start considering a mind/body/spirit model, she explains, you have more treatment options. She thinks of the connection this way: “The spirit is who we really are. Our mind is our thinking brain, and our body houses this. If you’re an addict, you often have to ignore your body, because you are, in essence, hurting your ‘house.’” Addicts often continue their destructive behavior by not checking in with their ‘home,’ or their body, she says.

Of course, destructive addictive behavior can have ramifications far beyond the individual addict. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addictions impact nearly all American families in some way. Alcohol, nicotine and illegal substances alone cost more than half a trillion dollars a year, in everything from health care costs to crime to accidents to special services in education.

The jury is still out on what causes addiction—most experts say it’s a combination of physiological susceptibility and environment. However, nearly everyone agrees that recovery is not about simple willpower. As one well-known Alcoholics Anonymous aphorism says, “We’re sick people trying to get better, not bad people trying to be good.”

Gabor Mate, M.D., a physician who worked with addicts in the drug-infested Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for years and author of In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost: Close encounters with addiction, says that addiction seems designed to help users escape pain. “All addictions serve as distractions at the very least,” he says.

Nearly any behavior can be addictive—even seemingly benign activities such as shopping, eating and sex. Mate says it really doesn’t matter what the “drug” of choice is—all addictions involve the same brain circuits and brain chemicals. The NIDA says that when addicts get a hit of their drug of choice, dopamine—the feel-good neurotransmitter—floods their brain’s reward system.

This may be why massage, which has been proven to increase dopamine and serotonin, and decrease cortisol, can help those in recovery. Schwehr says this piece is crucial, especially in the early stages of withdrawal when dopamine often drops significantly. “This can be a very uncomfortable time,” she says.

Other physiological and emotional issues in recovery include pain, agitation, anxiety and sleep problems. Massage—nearly any kind of massage—also helps with all of these, says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the University of Miami’s School of Medicine’s Touch Research Institute, which studies massage. “The body releases fewer stress hormones when being massaged,” Field says. Stress hormones, including cortisol, weaken the immune system and can lead to increased pain.“ This becomes, a vicious cycle,” Field says, “one that massage can help break.”

Also, in a study published in 2002, fibromyalgia patients, after receiving massage twice weekly for fi ve weeks, slept and felt better. Levels of neurotransmitter substance P—which your body emits when you are sleep deprived—decreased. “We found a direct relationship,” says Field.

Massage also helps with overall relaxation by stimulating pressure receptors, which enhance vagal activity. Since the vagus nerve is one of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain, this decreases heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and decreases stress hormones, according to Field. “You will sleep better, be less anxious,” says Field. “It’s a whole chemical reaction that is happening.”

Even those who are going through withdrawal from alcohol, cocaine or opiods relaxed more deeply with a simple chair massage than with 20-minute “relaxation sessions,” where participants sat in a quiet room and focused on their breathing. And those who received the massage sustained the relaxation benefits for 24 hours.

On a more superficial level, clients often just feel better after a massage, says Broadwell. “We’re able to show them, ‘This is what relaxation feels like,” she says. “Someone puts healing hands on you, and suddenly you become aware,” Mate says. “Often people say, ‘I never knew I was that sad/happy.’” To this end, massage therapists may have an advantage over medical doctors like him when working with this clientele, says Mate.

“Massage therapists get the stress/disease connection more than doctors do,” he says. “They actually can feel when a client is holding some tension. Physicians don’t put their hands on people like that.”

In Mate’s experience, most of the addicts he worked with—if not all—suffered early life trauma. In fact, he sees childhood trauma and emotional loss as the template for addictions. Many had boundaries violated. Therefore, tread carefully. Ground yourself first. “Make sure what you’re doing is to help them—not to be a hero, or to save anyone,” he says. If a client relapses, he says, and you get angry with them, then you are in a sense violating their boundaries. “Whatever happens to them, don’t take it personally,” Mate adds.

Diane Ansel, a Chicago-based massage therapist, says consider yourself a guide more than anything. “You work on them, and let it go. It’s up to them to turn it around,” she explains.

What you can offer, she says, is simple self-care techniques for between sessions. Ansel says she often takes inspiration in a long-told story of Gandhi. “I love the story of a mother who came to Gandhi and asked him to tell her child not to eat sugar,” she says. “Gandhi said come back next week. When they returned, Gandhi simply told the child, ‘Stop eating sugar.’ When the mother asked, why did they have to go and return for that? He replied, ‘I hadn’t given up sugar yet.’”

Mate says we can’t all wait until we’re perfect in order to help others. “To the extent that you haven’t dealt with your own stuff—or glimpsed your own possibilities—for you can only take people as far as you can go yourself. But no one ever finishes, so you don’t have to wait, just be aware. It takes a lot of self-awareness,” he says.

He also says that, in essence, all addictions are about self-soothing. Therefore, giving them a pathway with which they can connect to their bodies can be enormously empowering. Broadwell sees this with the clients at her wellness center all the time.

The clients start to realize, she says, that the “medicine” is inside of them. “This is a great paradigm shift,” she explains. First, she sees the effects of massage on the faces of the clients. “And then we hear it everyday in patient feedback: That the chronic pain is starting to improve, that they can now sleep with less or no medication,” she adds.

Schwehr says that one of her clients told her that the massage changed her experience at the rehab facility by “100 percent.” Another client told her that the bodywork she had done allowed her to feel connected to her body in a way she had never felt before.

Massage can even help with some basic rewiring of our brains, knowing what we know now about its neuroplasticity. Often, says Mate, early touch experiences of those who struggle with addiction have been “the opposite of healing,” which is partly why he advocates compassionate treatment for addicts rather than tough love. “[With massage therapy,] when they are being touched, it is not to give someone else pleasure, but to put themselves in touch with themselves,” he says. “If there’s some brain circuit that says to be touched is to be hurt,” Mate adds, “imagine being touched not to be hurt, but to be helped.”

Brendan C. experiences this rewiring, one day at a time. Twenty years sober, he says he’s still learning every day how to get in touch with his body and his feelings. Brendan says that many people with addictive personalities do not feel comfortable touching or being touched, himself included. “Part of the reason I drank,” he says, “was to avoid having intimate contact with those around me—my parents, children, wife.”

However, being willing to open up and to trust has made a world of difference. “Massage builds trust. Perhaps for the first time, the body can be completely relaxed, receptive, without the fear that the other person is going to hurt you,” he says.

This is what Schwehr sees all the time at the clinic, she says. “When someone has an opportunity to be touched, to have therapeutic work on their body, it can bring the [recovery] work home to a much deeper level,” she believes. “It can help connect the body to the emotions. I once read that emotions are our body’s way of telling us how it feels about what’s going on. When you bring someone back to their body, it’s like bringing them home.”

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