Why You Should Book a Massage Today

MassageI often get emails asking for my opinion about bodywork. While I’m not necessarily one to easily dismiss any treatment conventional wisdom would devalue, I also approach this arena with some healthy skepticism. The question becomes what’s effective and what’s simply “woo-woo,” to use a somehow unmatchable term. I’ll leave much of that specific discussion to you all today, but I did want to examine one modality that has more research behind it than most, even if that body of studies is still somewhat patchy. Most people have had a massage sometime in their lives. We certainly have our own opinions about its impact. Unless we were truly unlucky, most of us likely came away with a pretty good impression. Many of us have gone back many times since with perhaps a sizable financial and personal investment in the therapy – maybe even with a specific therapist. (It’s funny how people guard the availability of their favorite massage provider even as they clearly want to extol their endless virtues.) Our personal anecdotes aside, what does existing science say about the benefits of massage? For what conditions/circumstances is it especially effective? Can it benefit healthy as well as ill people? Let’s take a look.

A review of massage related studies claims the therapy appears to result in lower cortisol levels and higher dopamine and serotonin measures across many studies with different types of subject groups. Research related to the impact of massage on blood pressure has in some cases shown significant results. Not surprisingly, massage appears to be effective for low back pain, chronic neck pain and knee pain that is the result of osteoarthritis. In terms of exercise science, studies (while somewhat mixed) generally show that massage is helpful for muscle recovery. As little as ten minutes of massage, as one study indicates, can curtail inflammation and encourage the growth of new mitochondria.

Study results are mixed when it comes to ascertaining recommendations for frequency. A biweekly massage protocol in one study resulted in higher measures of oxytocin and lower levels of both arginine-vasopressin and adrenal corticotropin hormone (ACTH) when compared to a weekly protocol. However, the subjects who received biweekly treatment also demonstrated measures suggesting a higher production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. It’s unclear how many ancillary factors could be at play, but clearly more studies are needed to further explain this picture.

Still other research looks at the psychological and pain related benefits of massage. One study examined the effect of massage on a group of grieving relatives who had recently lost loved ones. Subjects shared that the massage times were a great consolation and source of both energy and rest during the transition. Not surprisingly, the comforting effects of massage work with other kinds of pain and distress. Massage appears to significantly reduce depressive symptoms and in another study have immediate impact on advanced cancer patients’ perception of pain as well as mood. Patients recovering from surgery respond better to a combination of massage and pain medication than they do to medication alone. It’s interesting how this archive study noted that massage used to be regular protocol following surgeries but is limited now with the shifts in hospital efficiency protocols.

Children, not surprisingly, seem to respond significantly to the therapy in a variety of circumstances. From pre-term babies who gain more weight with regular massage to children who experience less nausea and vomiting related to chemotherapy with massage, the therapy can offer clear physical advantages. Finally, research measuring the impact of massage on infants’ melatonin secretion even indicates that parents can use massage to help coordinate their babies’ circadian cycles with environmental cues. Why don’t we see this nugget in more infant care books?

All this said, what’s the take home message?

If I ever become ill with any of the aforementioned conditions for which massage apparently offers therapeutic benefit, would I take advantage of massage? Of course! If I’m healthy now with no presently manifesting conditions and am cognizant that research is scant regarding full and confirmed benefits for healthy individuals, would I take advantage of massage – and consider it an act of health rather than indulgence? Darn straight.

Sometimes we don’t need a mountain of randomized, controlled research to tell us what has the natural power to fill our well or enhance our well-being. You see, I’m a big believer in the basics of health – you know, those things like a solid, primal eating strategy, lots of Grok style exercise, quality sleep, and ample sun. That said, I think every choice we make around our well-being matters. To use the bank account metaphor here, I’m going to make as many deposits (and as few withdrawals) as possible. Every choice to feel good naturally is a deposit. While the research on play and outdoor time and massage might be in its relative infancy, I personally think there’s a decent enough scientific paper trail to support what already makes good Primal sense. I’ll never get a definitive measure for the cumulative impact of every massage I’ve received, but I can tell you every single one felt life-giving at the time. However major or modest a shift it made physiologically, each offered a ripple effect that continued days if not a couple of weeks past the event. Sometimes it was better sleep, more emotional resilience, additional patience, better (mental and physical) flexibility or just a happier outlook. My wife tells me I’m more laid back and agreeable – that much nicer to be around – after a massage. Maybe that point alone is the ultimate Primal logic.

Do you invest in massage or other kinds of bodywork? What do you feel it’s added to your health or well-being? Share your thoughts or stories about what massage can do for general wellness or particular health issues you’ve dealt with. Thanks for reading, everyone.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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43 thoughts on “Why You Should Book a Massage Today”

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  1. Quite simply, massage is one of those things that makes life worth living!

    1. Massage therapy can surely relieve pain and make you more mobile or increase your mobility. It stimulates the synovial fluid flow and eliminates muscle tension. After encountering an accident, I was under treatment from physiomed clinic in Toronto. Massage has also improved my sleep to an extent.

  2. Good points! Massage, Shiatsu, physiotherapy, and the accepted body-work techniques are indispensable for recovering athletes as well as for healthy aging or over-worked(physically or psychologically) adults and adolescents. In the hands of an empathetic and knowledgeable professional, amazing recovery and readjustment to equilibrium from uneven muscle use can be corrected and youthful vigor prolonged if the patient is motivated and has patience. There is no doubt “Grok” would agree and often had this care among his tribe, complete with soothing herbal balms from the administering shaman or wise woman. An active life is not all smooth sailing and without the modern technology of health care, this approach can be a lifesaver (as to a tired warrior or hunter as well as any person under intense life preserving activity.) We mend ourselves and massage can help us see what needs to be done to self heal and then maintain our well being.

  3. I had a lady named Judy in the last place I lived that would give me a massage every two weeks, and I looked forward to those times very much. I wish I still had her – I would pay for her move if she would do it. I have had massage sessions since, but they are just not the same. So as far as I am concerned it depends on the therapist and their level of knowledge. I’ve never found one to replace her.

  4. My wife and I ocassionally go to a local place for Asian accupressure massage. I have no idea if these people have any real training or credentials but the proof is in the pudding and they do a great job! The cost keeps us from going more often so it’s a special treat when we have it done.

    I would like to try some more intensive bodywork since my entire body seems to be wound as tight a knot, particularly my back and the ilio-tibial band on my right leg. I’d probably cry like a little girl if someone got down on that fascia but oh, it would feel so much better afterward!

  5. Thanks for reminding me that I owe myself a thai body massage!

  6. I have a massage every 2 weeks and I SO look forward to it. Had to postpone one a few weeks ago because of the snow and was I ever depressed! 🙂 But it made the next one even better.

  7. I’ve been meaning to get one for months (I’ve only had one massage in my whole life and it was long before I got healthy). I am in the process of booking it now. Thanks for the “nudge”!

  8. Massages are delightful. Simple. Forget talk of fascia, forget woo associated to mythical trigger points, muscle knots etc. the first point of contact with any massage or manual ‘body work’ is the skin and there you are dealing with one of the most richly innervated areas of the body, neurologically. Any sensory input to the brain will likely have an output. In the case of massage it should be one of well being. Palpatory pareidolia is rife in manual therapies, I can say that as a well informed science-based physio. Think physiology not anatomy, it’s all about the nervous system and of course that includes psychological aspects, so lie back relax enjoy the massage and the mindfulness it brings.

  9. I am pretty sure grok(s) gave each other massages. How else will aching muscles feel good sometimes at the end of the day? You don’t need science to tell you that counter pressure feels good.

  10. Weekly massage through about 5 years of (totally ridiculous) training for IMs certainly kept me from completely breaking myself!

    Massage therapy is an art as much as a science, with the right therapist it’s certainly health and life-enhancing.

    The fact that many of the traditional cultures have some form of massage certainly leads me to think it’s a fundamental human need/pleasure that has existed for as long as humans have.

    1. It is a fundamental pleasure and it has been around, in some form or other, longer than modern hominids. It’s called social grooming and is seen in all primates! We’ve just refined it 🙂

  11. I’ve never had a massage here in the states, but I did get one from a blind Filipino man during a trip to the Philippines. True story…One of the most bizarre experiences that I have ever had. Nonetheless, he was great and I’ve never felt as relaxed as I did after the massage.

  12. p.s. if anyone happens to go to India, seek out a ayurvedic medicine centre. BEST MASSAGE EVER.

  13. This is an easy recommendation for me as I have an amazing massage therapist on staff! Please try to get a therapeutic massage however! Spa massages may feel good at the time but now always are effective in breaking up adhesions and restoring function.

  14. I started the Paleo lifestyle a year ago. As a medical massage therapist I can say: thank you Mark for addressing massage! I love the medical aspect of massage and the results that I see with my clients. A lot of my clients have seen my transformation during this past year. I love to share my journey with them. I also have Mark’s books available for my clients to borrow. I made a website to keep our family’s favorite paleo recipes, http://www.paleofamily.weebly.com I am shortly adding personal training with an emphasis on weight training using the Starting Strength protocol.

    I have found, with regards to medical massage, that seeing clients more than once a week is not necessary. I want to see them often enough that we do not lose the progress that we have made in our sessions. That could be between 1 week and 2 months. The initial visits are closer together until we reach a maintenance stage of massage, allowing us to periodically increase the massage sessions as the need arises. I have been a massage therapist for 3 years. Through the questions that I ask my clients I am able to determine where they need work to achieve the results that we are aiming for.

  15. This article makes me miss my massage guy. Tiny Japanese man, sweet as pie. But when he found a knotted up muscle, he showed no mercy. Made me cry, howl, and sigh all at once. Hands of iron. Then he moved to Hawaii, and all I have left is a bamboo plant he gave me. Dang, he’s good.

  16. I work with some really really talented therapists. I wouldn’t refer to them so much as massage therapist, as I would soft tissue therapists. Massage would be a bit misleading as what they do can be very intense.

    But for anyone who suffers from chronic pain, related to poor posture, and muscular imbalances, finding a therapist who does things like Active Release Technique and structural integration can be a life safer! Highly recommend finding someone in your area if your suffer from those type of injuries/ ailments.

    1. I loved the deep tissue techniques! I had that after my herniated disk. One day, they had a sub who only did Swedish massage. It was nice but she might as well have just given me a hug. It was nothing compared to the deep tissue.

  17. Massage and ROLFing have been part of my life for over 20 years. There is no question in my mind that bodywork and self myofascial release are key to optimal health as it relates to being able to move better (especially if you sit at a desk all day), and I’m convinced there is a strong 2 way feedback loop between moving gracefully and feeling good mentally. The great thing about bodywork is that the masseuse almost always finds a knot or knots you didn’t know were there, and if you pay attention you always learn something.

  18. In many European countries massage is used as first line therapy much as physicians use physical therapy in the US.

  19. I have friends who regularly get therapeutic massages, and love them. I prefer to make up stretching routines based on martial arts movements — they leave me feeling as if I had had a massage.

    I’ve taught some of these routines to other athletes, who compare it to having a deep tissue massage. I can’t say how accurate that comparison is, as I’ve never had one.

    Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced Okinawan karate to Japan in the 1920s, recalled in his memoirs how his wife would spend hours weaving cloth to help support the family, and every morning she would walk well over a mile to work in the family’s vegetable garden.

    “When she felt particularly weary, she did not, as most women would have done, lie down and ask one of the children to massage her shoulders and arms. What she did to relieve her exhausted body was go outside and practice karate kata.”

    Karate movements involve a lot of pivoting on the balls of the feet in which are located pressure points that stimulate the heart, lungs, and thyroid.

    Let’s hear it for folk wisdom!

  20. Way before I went primal, I started getting biweekly massages and noticed a major reduction in the frequency of colds I contracted. This held up even after I had kids (in daycare)!

  21. I don’t think we need science to tell us there’s benefits to massage. Unfortunately I find it extremely displeasurable to be touched by people I don’t know, which kinda counteracts any benefits for me.

  22. I’ve been a massage therapist since 1995. First Eselan, then added sport/deep tissue, pregnancy, chair and myofascial release.

    It has been a joy and privledge to watch and feel people transform as I work on them. They come in with their shoulders in their ears, one hip higher than the other, their spines out of alignment and they hurt all over. They leave with their shoulders down, the hip starting to relax back into place, their spines have a bit more give. Their physical, and sometimes emotional/mental pain, has gone from a 10+ to a 2 or 3.

    I’m in the middle of a year long body work project on myself. The therapist I’m seeing does myofascial release, cranial sacral and a couple other modalities. We are working out 47 years worth of restrictions, stuck places where I’ve had injuries or wounds, ‘issues in the tissues’. My blood pressure has come down, I’m noticing I want to take better care of myself.

    Massage isn’t a luxury, it’s a basic necessity, especially if you’re single or live alone. Touch heals and nurtures, and massage is a safe way to be touched.

    Love yourself enough to get massage as often as your budget can afford it.

    1. x2.

      Nothing beats seeing a clients joy at being able to experience physical comfort they haven’t felt in years.

      My personal favourite will always be the lady who rang me up in excitement to tell me she was bitten by a mosquito and felt it. She had severe nerve damage from a car accident, and the months of work we had done had freed up the muscles tension restricting the nerves so she was now able to experience sensations on her skin. A fabulous result.

  23. i’m getting online and booking a massage right now! i’ve a gift certificate sitting around for a while, and now i have the impetus to schedule it!

    1. Me too, my gift certificate has just been sitting there “waiting for a good time”…no better time than now

  24. As a recent convert to primal, and one who tells any of my clients that will listen about the benefits of the primal blueprint, it does my heart good to hear you extoll the virtues of massage.

    You certainly didn’t “steal” this from me, but I have always maintained that massage makes you feel good, and makes you more fun to be around!

  25. I am shocked that Mark has done such little research regarding this post. Obviously I can understand his standpoint of the positives but the bad outweights the good. Massages if not regularly kept up can be very stressful as your body cannot self regulate itself and is always looking for that release. Additionally, and more importantly long term massages can actually lead to premature arthritis in children. Do yourself a favor, just say no to massages!

  26. I have been working with the same massage therapist for therapeutic massage for over 10 years. She trained largely in japan, and is a huge proponent of continuing education. She has been a lifesaver to me on a few occasions due to ferocious sciatica from a herniation. Likewise, I have done some permanent damage to my shoulder, and only 2 of the 4 muscles work fully. Getting rid of the resulting tightness on a regular basis (every 2-4 weeks) has also resulted in feeling lighter and I am convinced that I’m warding off potential future injury by keeping it supple. But most important has been her training in reflexology. When my gluten intolerance was at its worst, I showed up nearly in tears, barely able to take a deep breath due to what I now know was upper GI inflammation. She did some myofascial release on my abdomen/diaphragm, and then foot reflexology. It was so painful on my feet I nearly came off the table. But…next day I could breathe better, and by coincidence I also had a chiropractic appt the next day, and the diaphragmatic involvement she was tracking was not there the next day. If I hadn’t experienced it myself I’d call baloney,but it happened. And when I went gluten free and got better, the same spots on my feet didn’t hurt. And when I needed to get off grains a few years later, they hurt again, only to resolve with a cleaner diet. There is definitely something to all this, but I also think it takes the right practitioner.

    1. Read Dr Sarno’s – Healing Back Pain the Mind-body Connection – it may very well cure you for all time!

  27. I am a physical therapist and have used the same massage therapist for about 15 years. I usually go every 3 to 4 weeks and always look forward to it. It is the best form of relaxation for me, and since I use my hands all day long, it helps keep my hands and shoulders looser.

  28. I’m one of those people who had a bad experience with the only professional massage I’ve ever had. Before I went on paleo, I had bad hypothyroidism but didn’t know at the time what was wrong with me. My whole body was aching but someone had blessed me with a free massage. It was torture. Thankfully, my husband has given me some wonderful non-professional massages that haven’t put me off for life. I’m still keen to try it again should the finances allow.

  29. My horse loves to be massaged as well. He sometimes shows me the places, where I should massage him and moves his body into my hands, so I get deeper into the muscles. He always moves lighter the next day after a massage. There are even professional horse massage therapists in Austria. I watched them at work, read some books and tried myself. The hands always find the right way of moving, I think it is instinct. The only problem is, a horse’s body is so big and it takes time to give a complete massage.

  30. My local Whole Foods has an out of the way corner where you can get a chair massage for $1 per minute. These aren’t wannabes; they are fully trained professionals who also have their own facility if you desire a complete, lying-down massage. Apparently offering a few hours of their time at Whole Foods at discount prices helps these therapists build up their clientele, and I find that a 15-minute mini-massage (back, shoulders and neck) once or twice a week works wonders for me. It’s a win-win situation for all concerned. One thing they all recommend: Drink plenty of water. It’s necessary for proper functioning of the muscles.

  31. Not only can we guess confidently that our prehistoric ancestors massaged (and groomed) one another, we see it with other animals in nature and in our homes. Cats “paw” massage each other and their human and even canine friends. Man y primates groom one another.

    Another aspect of what makes a massage so rewarding (to receive AND give) is the connection with another person. Massage is “innocent” enough that we can be comfortable receiving it from a stranger and perhaps we don’t think about the fact that we’re being pampered by another human being, but on a subconscious level it is one of the aspects that makes massage enjoyable.

    Massage between romantic partners can really enhance their relationship too!

  32. Yeah, no. I’m firmly in the camp with the “no strangers touching me please!” From my DH, perhaps. But if it doesn’t bother you, or you see it as medical, or whathaveyou, great. I’m sure it’s very therapeutic.

  33. I treated a herniated disc in my low back exclusively with neuromuscular trigger point massage. It was terribly painful and the most unpleasant hour of my week, but it sure beat back surgery!!