Aaahhhh, massage. Just the word alone conjures up images of scented oils and blissful relaxation. But did you know that massage can help make working out better too?
Turns out massage isn't just a luxury you splurge on at the spa. It can also seriously boost your workouts so you're getting the results you want.
"Some kind of massage for people who work out is vital," Kimberly Dawn Neumann, an American Council on Exercise-certified fitness instructor at Equinox gyms in New York City, tells SheKnows. "You don't have to destroy your body to have the body you want. Taking care of it and being kind [to yourself] has its own benefits."
Here are five ways massage can help improve your fitness routine.
1. It enhances your post-workout recovery
A good, therapeutic massage helps loosen up your muscles after an intense workout, which in turn allows you to recover from the impact better and faster than you normally would. "You spend your time tightening and toning your muscles doing weight work and they start to feel like they're going to snap, they just get so tight," says Neumann. "Massage helps restore some pliability."
2. It soothes the pain of sore muscles
Those muscles can really ache after you put them through the ringer at the gym or while pounding the pavement during a run. But, massaging and stretching them can help work out the knots, flush out the toxins that contribute to the "ouch" factor and get the blood flowing again so they don't hurt so much. According to a 2012 study in Science Translational Medicine, massages helps reduce inflammation and help cells recover.
3. It makes your muscles work better
Regular exercise not only puts a strain on your muscles, ligaments and tendons, but it also messes with those connective fibers under the skin known as your fascia — which help the muscles work smoothly and efficiently when they're in good shape, according to Neumann.
"The fascia can get really gunked up with repeated exercise, and that makes it harder for muscles to slide past each other easily," she says. Massage helps by loosening up those fibers so the muscles are doing what they're supposed to with much less effort. And then, bingo! Your workouts get a nice boost.
4. It can increase flexibility
"Massage can help loosen up the muscles and restore some flexibility," Neumann says, adding that for most people, flexibility starts decreasing at the ripe old age of 12. "Unless you continually stretch to keep your muscles lubricated, you will get stiffer with age." But a massage, especially one that includes some stretching exercises, can reverse at least some of that process and give you back a bit of the incredible flexibility you had as a kid.
5. It helps you feel better, mentally
"If you're just beating yourself up with high-intensity classes or weight training, that's not going to be completely beneficial," Neumann explains. "Massage can give you a nice balance with the happy endorphins from working out. It's a cortisol reducer as well — a stress reliever."
She says the best workouts are those combining exercise with what she calls self-care.
"Instead of saying, 'I'm going to get the best body, damn it,' and push push pushing yourself, remember to give yourself care. Massage can be a nice part of that," Neumann says. "You need both the exercise and the maintenance. That's part of a well-rounded fitness regimen."
Makes perfect sense and sounds great… in theory. But, what if you don't have the budget for regular professional massages by a therapist or at a spa?
Neumann suggests hitting up your significant other if you have one who's willing. Otherwise, there are plenty of ways to do little massages on yourself using foam rollers, tune-up balls and other fitness accessories you can buy for a lot cheaper than booking a weekly massage. You can also just use your hands to work out the knots in the spots you can reach.
"Many of those will have the same effect from a muscle standpoint," she says. "You won't have the same relaxation or the benefits of healing touch, or the fun spa part of it. But you will actually be keeping your muscles in top shape by using some of those self-massage methods."
So, what are you waiting for? After your next workout, hit up your guy for a nice back-and-shoulder rub, book a deep-tissue appointment at the local day spa or DIY a massage if you're feeling adventurous. You'll get a lot more out of all that exercise and feel much better in the long run.
A version of this article was originally published in July 2015.