Relaxing treatment shows post-exercise promise

By | Health & Wellness
Massage therapy has shown to improve blood circulation following exercise, whilst also benefiting sedentary people too. Credit image@ Tara Angkor Hotel, flickr.com

Are the bicep curls making it complicated to lift your arms? Have all those squats made your trip up the stairs seem a fair bit longer? Those of us who exercise will know the feeling after a particularly intense workout, whether you’re a jogging novice or a gym rat: heavy, tender muscles.

Massages may drastically improve the soreness experienced following exercise, reports a novel study, and may even help those who prefer the sedentary lifestyle too.

Publishing the paper in the scientific journal Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, the team from the University of Illinois at Chicago, United States of America, noted how massages can improve circulation as well as the soreness following sports.

Exercise, when done correctly, induces the breakdown of the muscle fibres, creating micro-tears in the tissue. Furthermore, when performing explosive exercises like sprinting or lifting heavy weights, the body often resorts to providing energy using pathways that bypass the need to use oxygen.

Anaerobic respiration and the use of a compound called creatine phosphate both provide the necessary burst of energy, however the reduced levels of oxygen means that lactic acid can build up in the exercising tissue. It is this compound that often results in the muscle tenderness experienced following exercise.

Removal of these compounds, by stretching or massaging, was long thought to be the adequate method to improve muscle fatigue. Massaging the affected region would seem like the logical and beneficial course of action to take. However, the topic of massages has caused quite a lot of debate in the sports science industry, with specialists and various papers discussing the benefits of such therapy.

Indeed, in 2009, a study organised by scientist at Queens University and presented at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in Seattle that year, showed results that demonstrated how massage therapy reduced blood flow, whilst another study published three years later presented evidence that brief ten-minute massages positively impacted muscular inflammation.

These contrasting results clearly indicate that further research is required in this deceptively complex field, with the benefits, according to Professor Nina Franklin, first author of the study and speaking to the news release, being “previously recognised” whilst also acknowledging that results are “based on minimal data”.

As a result, the University of Illinois looked to discover the effects of massage therapy on vascular function, and thus blood flow, following exercise. A randomised, blinded trial was set up involving thirty-six test subjects who maintained a sedentary-type lifestyle.

These young men and women were asked to perform leg press exercises until reaching soreness. This machine is equivalent to performing a squat, with the possibility to alter the weights used.

The participants were assigned to three groups: those that performed the exercise, those that received a traditional Swedish massage, and finally those that received both.

Naturally, both exercise groups reported muscle soreness once completing the exercise.

When asked to rate the tenderness, those that received the massage therapy indicated that it had subsided an hour and a half later, compared to those that only performed the leg press reporting soreness well into the following day.

In addition, blood flow was measured by brachial artery flow mediated dilation, using ultrasound, which is the standard technique to assess vascular health, 90 minutes, 24, 48 and 72 hours after exercise.

The benefits of massages were clearly visible during the ultrasound assessment. The combination group showed drastically improved readings at all measurement points, whereas their sports-only counterparts showed the opposite, with blood flow returning to normal levels only three days later.

Seeing as the ultrasound is conducted in the arm, and shows improved vascular function, the results indicate that the effects of a massage causes a full body, or systemic, response, rather than just localised to the massaged area.

Even more interestingly, this phenomenon was also recorded in the massage-only subjects, showing almost identical improvements to circulation as those who underwent exercise tests beforehand. Thus, according to the authors, those with vascular conditions or with reduced mobility, massages could offer significant benefits.

What is your favourite massage technique? Have you had a massage that you’d recommend?

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