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So many massage types, so little time

By Mitch Rustad

If you're reading this, you're probably already the type who's hitting the gym several times per week, pumping out those sets and reps, with a diligent amount of cardio thrown in for good measure. But there's one important facet to fitness that many people overlook in the great chase for the ultimate physique—massage.

But how can lying around in your birthday suit, pampered, prodded, and slathered with scented oils, actually enhance your overall health?

"Massage is a crucial part of health and a fit body because it reduces stress," says Robert Volinksy, a massage therapist and owner of Restorative Therapies in New York City. "Stress can lead to all kinds of illness. By working on the nervous system, the body and mind relax, allowing the 'flight or flight' adrenaline response to a busy life to slow down or stop entirely."

Along with helping you chill out and reduce or eliminate the production of stress chemicals, massage therapy can increase circulation (which in turn can reduce swelling, decrease high blood pressure, lower your heart rate, and support cell detoxification), increase joint range of motion, decrease muscle pain, support the immune system, and reduce scar tissue.

Not to mention it's a great option when you're love life sucks. "The communication of such caring touch is also recognized by health professionals as an adjunct to pain relief, whether physical or emotional," says Volinsky.

Not all massages are created equal, however. Here's a basic primer to some of the general types of massage (at least the G-rated ones!) that can greatly enhance your health and fitness goals.

  • Swedish massage: No, this isn't a massage given by Britt Ekland, Bjorn Borg, or ABBA. Swedish massage therapy is all about bliss; the massage therapist uses gliding and kneading strokes, often accompanied by soothing aromatherapy oil or lotion. Settings vary, but often include soft music and lighting to promote relaxation. Swedish massage is also great for sports enthusiasts because it reduces recovery time from stiffness, soreness, and even injury. A skilled therapist can also reduce the harmful effects of inflammation and scar tissue.
  • Shiatsu: Originating in Japan, Shiatsu actually means "finger pressure." Practitioners use their body weight to apply that pressure to the meridians (lines of energy) that run through the body and correspond to the organs—a theory similar to acupuncture. While its focus is to open and balance the energy (Qi or Chi) of the body, it is also a "massage" in a sense and can provide the same benefits as Swedish.
  • Sports/Medical massage: Think of this as specialized Swedish massage for the real jocks out there. A sports massage therapist might specialize in one sport and be especially aware of the specific challenges of that sport (swimmers/rotator cuff, tennis players/shoulders and elbows, and so on) but will also be able to deal with a wide range of injuries: repetitive stress injuries, tendonitis, muscle tears, sprains, and cramping. Bodywork like trigger point therapy and myofascial release are usually included here. This massage is goal oriented and often may not include a full body session.
  • Reflexology: This massage stays strictly south of the ankles, but it's impact can be felt head to toe because the feet are littered with zones that correspond to every part of the body. "Some believe they are connected through meridians, others say nerves," says Volinsky, "but as pressure and other massage techniques are applied to the soles of the feet it can bring energetic balance to the body."
  • Watsu: If you're a fan of water sports you'll love the Watsu massage, which is performed in a Watsu pool or tub, usually at upscale, destination spas. Enhanced circulation, flexibility, and relaxation are achieved in this soothing treatment, which also opens meridians and stretches tight muscles.
  • Reiki: Forget the essential oils and long, smooth strokes of Shiatsu or Swedish; this form of hands-on healing that has its roots in ancient Tibet. The practitioner acts as a "radio antenna" of sorts to channel universal life force energy. Proponents on Reiki say this can help to release energetic blockages and tension, making this practice deeply restorative.
  • Rolfing: This intense treatment is not for the faint of heart—it's very deep soft tissue work can be uncomfortable to say the least (some might describe it as a "hurts so good" experience). However, Rolfing believers credit the practice with achieving significant improvements in their posture, joints, and general health. A full course of Rolfing treatment consists of 10 sessions.
Mitch Rustad is a freelance writer who has written for numerous fitness and health publications, including Men's Fitness, Tennis, and Shape. A former tennis professional, he resides in Manhattan.