Sports Massage Research

I want to take a little time and talk about some new research that came out about the benefits of massage in the context of exercise.

Before I begin, though, listen to one of the researchers talk about the set-up of the study. He can explain things a bit better than I can, plus he has a nice accent.

Buck Institute Faculty Simon Melov, PhD, Discusses Recent Study on Molecular Benefits of Massage Therapy Following Exercise from Buck Institute on Vimeo.

As the researcher explains above, exercise actually causes minor damage to muscles, which, as a result, causes inflammation. This inflammation is what’s happening when someone experiences an ache or soreness after exercising. While the typical response to this pain is to take anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, researchers tested to see the effects of massage on these damaged muscles.

One of the great things about this study is that they tested such effects in an objective fashion – they weren’t giving participants questionnaires or anything; researchers actually took biopsies of the participants’ leg muscles. Both legs, three times each – before the exercise (resting muscle), after the exercise (damaged muscle) and after the massage (tested muscle). Since only one leg got massaged after exercise, the other leg was used as a control for comparison.

What did the researchers find? They found that getting a massage immediately after strenuous exercise turned on genes to decrease muscle inflammation. This is similar to the effect of painkillers. Perhaps more importantly, though, they found that the massage turned on genes that promoted the creation of mitochondria in the muscle cells.

Why is this second finding so important? Mitochondria are essential for cells in order to produce energy (ATP). More specifically, having more mitochondria allows the cells to bring in more oxygen, which means that more sugars can be broken down for energy. And this, in turn, makes the muscles stronger.

The purpose of exercise is to make muscles stronger (which it does), but when exercise is coupled with massage, the results are even more pronounced. In short: exercise is good, but exercise plus massage is even better.

And while this study may have a fairly small reach (ie, these effects were found when massage was given immediately after intense exercise – would there be effects from a massage a few hours after? A few days? What about less strenuous exercise?), the implications are still really cool. Massage can change the cellular structure of muscles in order to make the muscles stronger. So rad!

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