What do elite athletes and top performers have in common? The answer it turns out is a relentless focus on optimising their performance, and that usually includes a big investment in massages so they can push their body and mind to world-class levels.
Now you may think of a massage as an expensive luxury reserved for special occasions and spa visits… Well, think again, not only are massages a lot more affordable than ever, but massage chairs have improved massively and can offer a lot of the benefits in the comfort of your home at a fraction of the price.
But for now let’s take a look at some of the science-backed benefits of massage therapy:
Massage and stress relief
Stress is insidious as you tend to only notice its effects when it’s too late. Heightened stress causes spikes of cortisol which not only affects your happiness but can promote weight gain, chronic disease, headaches, sleep problems, lower life expectancy, affect your sex drive, can trigger autoimmune disease flares, anxiety, depression, anger outbursts and irritable bowel syndrome.
A recent review of 25 studies studying the effects of massage found that 89% of studies noted a significant reduction of cortisol as measured through saliva (known as the stress hormone) immediately following massage therapy.
Cortisol levels then naturally tend to rise up as you deal with your day to day stresses, so it’s important to schedule regular massages to continue receiving these benefits.
Massage and blood pressure support
Our body usually moves between two states of being: the sympathetic state (know as the fight or flight mode) in response to stress and the parasympathetic state (known as the rest and digest mode) in response to a calm environment.
Studies are finding that massage can help shift the body from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state, which allows blood vessels to dilate decreasing blood pressure.
Also, it’s interesting to note that when we are under stress, cortisol spikes raise blood pressure, so a massage seems to help blood pressure both through the nervous system bringing us to a parasympathetic state and by lowering cortisol levels which can increase it.
Massage and your immune system
Early studies have found that Swedish massage may help boost helper cells involved in our immune system, in particular it boosted the number of circulating lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that help fight infection.
Participants also had lower levels of cytokines, which play a role in inflammation as well as a drop in cortisol.
Massage and back pain
According to the CDC, approximately 8 out of 10 in the USA will experience back problems at some point in their lifetime, and chronic back pain is on the rise affecting nearly 30% of adults and 33% over 65.
Chronic back pain is notoriously hard to treat and can affect your work, sleep and overall quality of life.
Whilst prescription drugs and pain killers are the most popular methods of dealing with the symptoms, a recent study found that 10 massage session helped 50% of the study participants with chronic low back pain with clinically significant improvements.
Massage and sleep
If you suffer from poor sleep and find yourself tossing and turning in bed, or regularly waking up at night then this may be a game changer… The university of Miami, school of Medicine found that a twice a week massage session significantly reduced sleep disturbances, helping participants get to sleep faster and waking up less often during the night.
They also reported experiencing less pain, depression, anxiety as well as improved trunk and pain flexion performance.
Massage and happiness
Our happiness is in part the result of a chemical cocktail of hormones: Dopamine and Serotonin make us feel happy, whilst on the flip side low levels of these hormones as well as elevated cortisol, and excitatory hormones such as norepinephrine and epinephrine can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression.
We already covered how massage can lower cortisol levels, so let’s see how a humble massage may impact these other hormones.
A meta analysis of 17 studies with a population of 786 persons, concluded that massage therapy significantly reduced depressive symptoms.
Not only does massage feel great, but it seems to have an effect on the key hormones which regulate our feelings of happiness.
Types of massages and techniques
Massage techniques vary greatly in terms of intensity and treatment objectives, so let’s have a quick look at the most popular types of massages so you can find the best fit:
Thai massages have been practised in Thailand for over 2500 years, based on an ancient healing system combining acupressure, Indian ayurvedic principles and assisted yoga poses.
A full Thai massage is typically performed on a firm mat and features medium intensity rhythmic pressing, kneading, positioning and stretching of the entire body to clear blockages, manipulate soft tissue as well as stimulate the flow of blood and lymph.
This is one of the most popular forms of massage, featuring five main strokes: Effleurage (sliding), petrissage (kneading), tapotement (rhythmic tapping), friction, and vibration/shaking.
Massage intensity can be varied from light to vigorous based on your request to stimulate circulation, manipulate soft tissue, relieve back pain and promote deep relaxation.
Chinese massage tends to be more vigorous and focuses on Qigong pressure points.
You will encounter pushing, stretching, kneading and something called Zhi Ya which involves pinching and pressing acupressure points.
Deep tissue massage
Deep tissue massages are more focused on therapeutic benefits, featuring firm pressure and slow strokes to target the deeper layers of muscle and their surrounding connective tissue.
Deep tissue massage is used for chronic aches and pain, sore shoulders, muscle tightness and stiffness.
Athletes use sports massage before, during and after performances for optimal results. Massage can be used to warm up the body to lower risk of injury, after intense exercise to speed up recovery and in between sessions to treat injuries.
Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage based on traditional Chinese medicine.
The technique involves stretching, holding, rubbing, squeezing, tapping, joint manipulations as well as finger, thumb kneading and leaning the therapist’s body weight into various pressure points.
To date, this type of massage has the least amount of research supporting it but is relaxing none the less.
What about massage chairs?
From testing a few massage chairs recently I can safely say that massage chairs have come a long way since the early days where you would just get a vibrating seat!
So massage chairs come in two types of flavours: Sub £250 massage seat covers and £1000+ chairs.
You can typically try some of the more expensive chairs at some spas, airports and shopping malls. These tend to be big leather chairs featuring feet, ankle, leg, back and neck massage options, using heat, shiatsu, compression, vibration, kneading, tapping, and rolling techniques.
At the sub £250 range, you are looking at chair covers you can attach to any upright chair or in some cases a reclining arm chair. These are designed for up to 15 minutes massage at a time and feature more discrete vibration, heat, shiatsu, rolling, kneading, tapping and swing massage techniques.
Can these replace a massage therapist? Unfortunately not, a human massage will be longer, deeper, and importantly personalised to your needs. There is also something to be said about the human touch, essential oils and the energy you get from a traditional massage.
But having used a Beurer 300 massage chair daily (we are not affiliated in any way with this manufacturer by the way) for the last month I can definitely feel some benefits. It’s helped with backache, and helps provide a window of relaxation to break up the workday.
The biggest advantages are that you can have your massage anytime, and at the price of a few traditional massages, it’s a little luxury anyone can afford.
The daily and bi-monthly massage protocol
Do you want to get the most out of massage therapy? Then look no further than what I call the daily and bi-monthly massage protocol.
These are inspired by Robin Sharma’s massage protocol, which he’s shared with stunning success with leaders across the world and high-performance athletes.
If you can afford it I highly recommend the bi-monthly massage protocol, where you schedule a 45-60 minute massage twice a month. You can find many massage therapists online who can come to your home, or find a massage parlour in your area.
Talk to the massage therapist or owners and see if you can negotiate a frequent client price, many will be happy to discount their services in exchange for a regular client.
Alternatively or as a complement, you can also invest in a massage chair and take advantage of the daily massage protocol, with one or two 15 minute massages a day to refresh and unwind.
Want to get even more out of those 15 minutes? Combine meditation at the same time, focusing on your breath throughout the session.
Robin Sharma swears by his weekly massage protocol, and ranks it as one of his most important self care habits, so why not try this today and see how you can lower your stress, improve your blood pressure, help your immune system, ease chronic back pain, sleep deeper and feel happier today.
 Albert Moraska, Robin A. Pollini, Karen Boulanger, Marissa Z. Brooks, and Lesley Teitlebaum, “Physiological Adjustments to Stress Measures Following Massage Therapy: A Review of the Literature,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 409-418, 2010. doi:10.1093/ecam/nen029
 Mark Hyman Rapaport, Pamela Schettler, and Catherine Bresee. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. October 2010, 16(10): 1079-1088. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2009.0634
 William G. Elder, PhD, Niki Munk, PhD, LMT, Margaret M. Love, PhD, Geza G. Bruckner, PhD, Kathryn E. Stewart, BS, LMT, Kevin Pearce, MD, MPH; Real-World Massage Therapy Produces Meaningful Effectiveness Signal for Primary Care Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: Results of a Repeated Measures Cohort Study, Pain Medicine, Volume 18, Issue 7, 1 July 2017, Pages 1394–1405, https://doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnw347
CORTISOL DECREASES AND SEROTONIN AND DOPAMINE INCREASE FOLLOWING MASSAGE THERAPY
TIFFANY FIELD, MARIA HERNANDEZ-REIF, MIGUEL DIEGO, SAUL SCHANBERG & CYNTHIA KUHN
Pages 1397-1413 | Received 22 Nov 2004, Published online: 07 Jul 2009
 The Effect of a Hand Massage Program on Anxiety and Immune Function in Clients with Cataract Surgery under Local Anesthesia
Kyung Sook Cho