Have you ever thought of yourself as an athlete?
If you’ve had marathon days with massage clients booked back-to-back—with just a few gulps of water and energy bars or bites of food to sustain you between sessions—your body might readily acknowledge the title.
There is no doubt massage is physically demanding work. Like an athlete, you expend both physical and mental energy taking care of your clients.
Athletes train. They exercise to stay mentally and physically fit for their sport. This is why you must determine what type of exercise is conducive to your body, schedule and mindset. Notice I didn’t say you should decide whether or not to exercise; a growing body of evidence indicates exercise is necessary for virtually everyone.
Read on to be inspired by your colleagues, massage therapists who have found the type of movement that works best for them—and keeps them in the massage profession.
The Power of Example
Twelve years ago, massage therapist Joanne Halpin was keenly aware of the potentially devastating effects of injury on a massage career. What made it particularly poignant was that her career hadn’t quite started.
Halpin was in massage school and eager to become a therapist, but repetitive strain injury in her forearm extensors from a computer job caused serious doubt as to whether she would get to practice.
“Thankfully, my instructor worked with me doing myofascial release, [and] it cleared the scar tissue and relieved the pain,” Halpin said. “I was able to feel confident that I could work as a therapist.”
That early experience instilled in Halpin the importance of self-care. Fresh out of school, she worked at a high-volume salon doing seven massages a day without incident. She credits her healthy 11 years in practice to receiving massage—and engaging in regular exercise to keep fit. Today, as a spa therapist at Joi Salon and Spa Escape in Boston, Massachusetts, she gives four to five massages a day.
Six years ago, Halpin made exercise a priority. “My exercise routine averages only 45 minutes, but it’s a combination designed to be extremely effective,” she said. Five days are dedicated to interval training for core strengthening and balance, and two days a week she incorporates yoga for stretching.
“I sprinkle in Pilates for core strengthening and use yoga for lengthening,” she added. “Interval training is the stronger piece for me, which includes lots of jumps.”
Halpin says the biggest benefits to her life have been strengthening, endurance and coordination. “I have far more energy now, which translates into greater stamina and efficiency of movement in my work,” she added.
Halpin rounds out her daily routine with hiking in the Blue Hills Reservation. “I’m social and love nature, so hiking is great fun with friends,” she said. “Being in nature is mentally calming and grounding. The terrain is unpredictable, which adds a mental aspect that makes it the perfect integrative mind-body activity. It recalibrates me.”
The differences a balanced daily exercise program makes are significant, Halpin said. “I’ve gotten better at time management in order to prioritize exercise into my day, and as a result, it’s great to be living the benefits of exercise that you read about all the time.”
Those benefits, she said, include more stamina for her work and her life, less-frequent colds, better sleep, an improved mood,more patience, fewer headaches, better posture and less-painful menstrual cramps.
“Between cell phones and social media, it seems we’re always tethered to something,” Halpin said. “Daily exercise is a great way to unplug, center yourself and rebalance.”
Her observation is backed by research. Earlier this year, Israeli researchers discovered that employees who found time to engage in physical activity were less likely to experience a deterioration of their mental health, including symptoms of burnout and depression.
“The best benefits were achieved among those exercising for four hours per week,” the researchers noted. “They were approximately half as likely to experience deterioration in their mental state as those who did no physical activity.”
Halpin has noticed another level of benefits she didn’t anticipate from her exercise program. “I didn’t realize how much my walking the talk of good health would impact my clients,” she explained. “I feel I have more credibility with them, which creates greater trust.
“When they ask about a certain posture or which muscles are worked, I can answer them from a place of integrity, and being a model of balance encourages my clients,” Halpin added. “The power of example can be pretty big.”
Clear, Strong and Peaceful
In 2009, during a course of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Kat Mayers received a massage. That massage triggered her back-burner desire to become a therapist and motivated her to do so once she got well. In 2010, she started her practice, Kavema Massage and Wellness, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
At a checkup in February of this year, Mayers’ doctor commented she looked tired. Upon consideration, she acknowledged the DVD workouts she was doing twice weekly weren’t keeping up with the demand placed on her body by doing deep-tissue massage.
Often after a session or two, she felt drained—and especially so at the end of a full day.
“As a kid, I was always active,”Mayers recalled. “Over time, life got in the way and exercise went by the wayside.
“I realized my body is the other piece of equipment in the room that allows me to do my work,” she added. “I needed to get my equipment in check to stay healthy for myself as well as my clients.”
Mayers joined a gym and started working out four to five days a week. Her new regimen is as follows: walking on a treadmill for two to two-and-a-half miles for cardiovascular health; alternate days working with weights for upper- and lower-body strength; using a medicine ball for squat throws; and Pilates twice weekly for stretching and core benefits.
At a return visit to her doctor three months later, Mayers’ doctor had quite a different observation. “He said, ‘You look great. You look rested, you’ve toned up and you’ve lost 7 pounds,’” Mayers said.
“Daily exercise has made a big impact,” she said. “Not only have I lost weight, but the increase in my energy level has affected every area of my life. I feel physically stronger and more mentally and emotionally balanced. The problem I used to have sleeping is gone, and my thinking is much clearer. My overall emotional state is happier and more even-keeled.”
Mayers’ exercise benefits have also carried through to her clients. “What a difference going from feeling drained after a session to working the day with plenty of energy left over for me,” she said.
The positive effects of her workouts have transferred through her body into her massage, and her clients sense it, she said. “They comment [on how] my work feels better and there seems to be a more even flow to their sessions now,”Mayers added. “It’s interesting that although people can’t see what’s going on inside you, they can feel it through your hands. If you’re jumbled up internally, they leave feeling like you do on the inside. If you’re clear, strong and peaceful, they leave feeling that.”
Getting Around Obstacles
Four years ago, Vincent Bounds entered the massage profession 30 pounds overweight and with a 10-year history of smoking. “I could barely make it up a three-story walk-up without fatigue and shortness of breath,” he said. Two years ago, he decided to hire a trainer.
“I wanted to work with someone in shape who reflected what he was representing,” Bounds said. “That thought hit me because I was concerned about the perception people had about me as a massage therapist representing wellness.
“If someone was looking to me for massage treatment, I felt I should look like I participate in a wellness program, not like I was going to sweat on them and struggle around the table,” said Bounds, who works at the Creedmoor Wellness Center in Creedmoor, North Carolina.
He began his exercise regimen with strength training five to six days a week for a year, but it didn’t shift the excess weight. He added a spin class and kickboxing to bring in cardio and strengthen his lungs. He swapped them out for a twice-a-week class called Insanity, which uses plyometrics and involves fast, powerful movements; abdominal work; jumping rope; cardio; and yoga. He does each exercise for three minutes with a 30-second break, repeatedly. Through strengthening and cardio training, the Insanity classes shifted his ability to be more mobile on his feet.
Soon he was training for his first 5K, military-style obstacle course race, running on uneven, muddy terrain through 20 different obstacles.
“With that race, I went from my highest physical high while training to my lowest low at the end of it,” Bounds recalled. “My body was ready to shut down.” Humbled and motivated to do better, he recommitted to his exercise regimen. “I ran my second race six weeks later much improved, and am training for my third,” he said.
Exercise has made a significant change in Bounds’ life. The low-back problems he came into massage with are gone, along with the extra 30 pounds. His concern about straining something while touching his toes has been replaced with the confidence his body can now handle anything the day brings—and still have ample energy when he gets home.
Bounds isn’t alone in experiencing radical bodily changes after starting an exercise program. Earlier this year, researchers led by Griffin P. Rodgers, M.D., director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, found weight loss and increased physical fitness nearly halved the risk of losing mobility in overweight or obese adults with type-2 diabetes.
Bounds observed more emotional self-awareness, and feels he has greater empathy for others.
“I’m focused on the quality of massage I’m giving the person on my table in the moment,” he explained. In addition, his clients have shared that his massage is more effective. “It’s ironic that running obstacle races has changed my worldview,” Bounds said. “Things I used to consider obstacles just aren’t that big a deal anymore.”
Choose to Benefit
These three massage therapists have each embraced varying forms of proven methods of athletic training. By combining strength training, aerobic exercise and stretching, Halpin, Bounds and Mayers are reaping the physical and mental benefits of exercise for themselves and their clients.
With today’s plethora of exercise options available,what fun combination will you choose to incorporate into your life to keep you fit for massage?
Kathleen Gramzay, L.M.T., N.C.T.M.B., is the developer and nationally approved continuing education provider of Kinessage® Massage Through Movement and Kinessage® Self Care for Therapists. She teaches massage therapists and also presents Kinessage® Self Care to the general public.