Massage therapists are athletes who place high performance demands on their bodies.
But with the physical requirements of the job, there seems to be little time or energy to train on an athlete’s level.
“Massage therapists spend their entire careers taking care of people, but who takes care of the therapists?” asked massage therapist Jim Wharton of Wharton Health in New York, New York. Wharton’s full appointment book reads like the Who’s Who of professional sports, Olympic Games, Broadway and Hollywood.
“In our clinics, we work every day to develop, maintain and rehab athletes and dancers whose careers demand optimal physical performance,” Wharton said. “At the same time, we’re acutely aware that our careers as therapists demand that same optimal performance. We’re athletes by every definition of the word.”
Wharton’s right: You’re an athlete. The U.S. Department of Labor even put a warning note into its overview on massage therapy as a profession that states, “Because massage is physically demanding, massage therapists can injure themselves if they do not use the proper techniques.”
So to help keep you in top shape for a long, successful career, I have some tips, in the areas of nutrition and exercise, that will help you knock off excess pounds of fat, get moving with equipment you already have at work, ramp up your stamina, increase the quality of your work and the duration of your career, and make life more enjoyable.
Optimal performance takes work, and although I would like you to enter into a comprehensive program of diet and exercise with a certified personal trainer, there is a lot you can do on your own to take control of your fitness.
Jerry Napp, an educational consultant with the National Academy of Sports Medicine, says humans were designed to move and burn calories as fuel, but modern technology has made life too easy for us. Because we’re more sedentary than our ancestors were, much of our food today is fuel we don’t use. When we don’t use fuel, we store it as fat.
We measure the relative value of food as fuel in calories: the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1 degree Celsius. Muscles are like furnaces that convert calories into fuel to manufacture energy. So, to think of calories in terms of heat makes sense.
Let’s put this information into practical application with simple math: When you have a surplus of 3,500 calories of unused energy, your body stores it as one pound of fat. In other words, if you consume 3,500 more calories than you need, you’ll put on a pound. If you burn 3,500 calories fewer than you consume, you’ll lose a pound. The great news is you can combine these two simple principles to make fat loss twice as effective. When you burn 3,500 extra calories and eat 3,500 fewer calories simultaneously, you drop two pounds of fat.
A general rule of thumb for manipulating food to drop pounds is to increase your protein intake, decrease the amount of carbs in your diet, cut back on fats and drop your calorie count. But be careful; if you cut calories too much or too rapidly, the body perceives it’s starving and lowers its metabolism to hold on to every crumb of fuel.
There is a brilliant way to trick your body: A study done by researchers at the University of Illinois and published in Obesity Reviews took a look at restricting calories by 15 to 60 percent every day versus restricting calories every other day. They found both eating plans are equally effective at lowering body fat and decreasing weight, but intermittent calorie restriction may be more effective in the retention of lean mass.
In other words, you’ll lose about the same amount of fat and weight either way, but will lose less muscle if you eat normally one day and restrict calories the next day.
You’ll need all that protected, lean muscle to power your workouts, because when you engage in exercise—raising your heart rate and working up a sweat—your body rewards you with a bonus: When you exert, your metabolism increases and burns calories. Metabolism is the function of your cells as they create energy and repair themselves.
According to researchers Chantal A. Vella, Ph.D., and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., from the University of New Mexico, in their study, “Exercise After-Burn: Research Update,” when metabolism is increased in a workout, it remains increased for up to 48 hours, depending on intensity, effort and duration of the workout. This phenomenon is called excess postexercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or after-burn. With EPOC, you burn calories merely by basking in the glow of your achievement.
Get a Grip on Groceries
Let’s say it together: “Dieting doesn’t work over the long haul—but eating like an intelligent human does.” We’re not talking about perfection. If you can manage to be righteous only 80 percent of the time, you’ll be ahead of the game. Here are a few simple tips for eating like an athlete.
1. If it’s not food, don’t eat it.
Stock your kitchen with fruits, vegetables, grains and meats that have never seen the inside of a lab.
Be cautious about packaged, processed foods. An “edible” on a grocery shelf might not be actual food. Food is fuel with nutritional value. You might consider a fresh alternative if the edible has more than several ingredients, ingredients you can’t pronounce, or an expiration date you know intuitively is longer than food can stay fresh. (“These beans are viable until the year after next? Really?”)
2. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store.
Fresh produce and meat tend to be around the edges of the store. To avoid confusion and temptation, keep your cart out of the aisles unless you need items like paper towels. Plan your menu, make a list and stick to it.
And shop when you’re full. Hungry people, even those with strong will power, can lose their minds in the potato chip aisle.
3. Eat seasonally and locally.
If you eat food out of season, one of two things has happened: Either your food has been shipped from another part of the planet, losing nutrients en route, or it’s been engineered in some way. There might be better, safer, fresher and more valuable choices.
Fresh-from-the-farm, locally produced food is likely more nutrient-dense than something shipped over time and distance. You’ll also have the pleasure of supporting local farmers and the economy of your area.
4. Eat organic food.
Organic food doesn’t contain additives, chemical fertilizers, fungicides, flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners, contaminants, colorants, preservatives or pesticides. It’s the real deal. The little stickers on fruits and vegetables have a barcode and a numeric designation. On organic produce, that numeric designation begins with the number 9.
5. Drink lots of water, to the near exclusion of all other fluids.
6. Restrict calories every other day.
Eat wisely and well all the time, but cut back on your normal caloric intake by 15 to 60 percent three days a week.
7. Add vitamin D to your life.
Vitamin D is both a nutrient and a hormone. The Harvard School of Public Health reports the intake of vitamin D appears to reduce risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and infectious diseases such as the flu. It helps build bone and may increase muscle strength.
In sunshine, the human body manufactures vitamin D from cholesterol. Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are a good food source of vitamin D—but to be sure you’re getting enough vitamin D, supplements work as insurance policies. The Institute of Medicine recommends an adult dose of 600 international units (IUs) a day, but ask your physician about this before beginning supplementation.
Now that you have your diet under control, it’s time to turn your attention toward exercise. (Diet had to come first, because it’s impossible to outwork a bad diet. High-quality fuel is crucial.)
It’s tempting to think because you massage all day, you get enough physical activity—but that’s typically not the case. No modality of massage therapy puts all major muscle groups through their paces. At the end of a long day, it seems counterintuitive to work out an already tired body, but the truth is post-workday exercise will energize you and begin to effect results you’ll see and feel fairly quickly.
With the investment of a workout a few times a week, the dividends are astounding. First, you’ll get happier. Exercising for only 30 minutes releases chemicals—serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine—in the brain that improve mood, according to the National Institutes of Health.
You’ll also get smarter. Several studies show exercise brightens perception, enhances memory, helps maintain mental acuity throughout life and makes learning easier.
You’ll be less stressed. Depression can lift with exercise, say researchers Lynette L. Craft, Ph.D., and Frank M. Perna, Ed.D., Ph.D., in their results published in The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. You’ll be more confident. You’ll feel better. You’ll get stronger. You’ll have more energy. You’ll sleep better. Fat will melt away, leaving behind a leaner, more sculpted and more efficient you. All this adds up to the ability to massage as long as you want every day and maintain your career until you decide it’s time to retire.
Jerry Napp of the National Academy of Sports Medicine notes technology is one of the culprits in our obesity pandemic, but it’s also one of our smartest solutions. He says massage therapists can benefit greatly from wearing a small pedometer to measure steps, or an accelerometer that records movement in several planes of motion, giving the therapist a brutally honest dose of reality every day and answering the question, “How much do I really move?” These devices are inexpensive, fun to use and great motivators.
Apps abound, along with online communities of like-minded athletes in training. A little homework will show you the way.
No More Excuses
The busy massage therapist’s favorite excuse for skipping a workout is lack of time. Consider this excuse busted right here, right now. Exercise doesn’t have to be done in a marathon session in order to benefit you; there is no need to clear your schedule and block out time. We now know short sessions are wonderfully effective.
A recent study by Glenn Gaesser, professor and director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University, concludes three 10-minute sessions of brisk walking throughout the day—at 9:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.—lowered blood pressure better than one 30-minute session. The weight-loss benefits have also been confirmed repeatedly in other studies of fractionalized workouts. Gaesser points out you will not be a competitive athlete with a series of 10-minute workouts, but you can benefit and see measurable results.
Do the Work
As a massage therapist doing the work of an athlete, you deserve the same training and lifestyle as a world-class champion. It will take a little time and effort to put the pieces into place, but the results will bring joy and an extended career. You get out of life only what you put into it. Be willing to do the work.
About the Author
Vincent Cambrea is the director of education for the Cambrea Institute in Gainesville, Florida; a faculty member at the Florida School of Massage; and creator of Integrated Massage and Personal (IMAP) Training.