If you’ve been keeping up with Judson’s health and wellness articles, you’ll be familiar with this quote from the American Medical Association:
“It has been verified through scientific exploration that more than 80 percent of all diseases are due to stress and strain that originate in the mind and reflect on the body.”
We are experiencing more physical, chemical and emotional stress in our lives than ever before. But the good news is that even if you’re not aware of these stressors on your mind and body, there are numerous ways to mitigate their effects. But first, let’s take a second to define stress to learn how we can get rid of it.
What is Stress?
“Everybody experiences stress,” says Sara Peckham, former long-time director of wellness at Judson and member of Judson’s board of directors. “It’s the body’s natural reaction to a stimulus or stressor that disturbs our physical or mental equilibrium. It’s also commonly known as our ‘fight or flight’ response.”
This response to life or death situations served us well in the evolutionary process, allowing us to adapt and survive in dangerous situations.
Here is your body’s physiological response to this type of stress:
- Increased heart rate and pulse
- Heightened muscle preparedness/tension
- Increased blood pressure
- Rapid breathing
- Digestive system slowdown
- Immune system suppression
- Heightened alertness/lack of sleep
- Increased in cortisol production (stress hormone)
You can see how these reactions can be beneficial in dangerous situations. Our body, in remarkable fashion, responds so that the necessary functions for immediate survival are enhanced. Pretty impressive, really. But once the dangerous situation subsided, our body was meant to return to homeostasis.
The problem we’re finding in today’s culture is that many of us have this “fight or flight” mechanism turned on continually throughout our lives, and in everyday situations that don’t warrant this level of response. Refer once again to the list above, and imagine those reactions being someone’s state of being.
Exposed to this type of stress continually over the course of our lives has a chronic effect and can lead to the sub-par performance and breakdown of various internal organs, all the way down to a cellular level.
Researchers have identified common health problems associated with chronic stress:
- Headaches and Migraines
- Increased Muscle Tension
- Gastrointestinal Problems
As you can see, these are issues that don’t affect only older adults, but the members of every generation.
And while we’ve previously offered a variety of avenues to stress prevention, what do we do if we’ve already experienced the negative effects of stress? How do we undo the damage stress has wreaked on our body?
A great place to start is massage therapy.
How Massage Therapy Benefits Seniors
Beyond the obvious aesthetic benefits like relaxation, therapeutic massage has been shown to decrease stress in the body and lessen the negative effects of anxiety, depression and even digestive disorders.
The Mayo Clinic agrees: “Studies of the benefits of massage demonstrate that it is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain and muscle tension.”
“The benefits of massage therapy are wide ranging,” says Anthony Lima, licensed massage therapist at Judson. “From increasing blood flow to the limbs to supporting the body’s immune and nervous systems, massage is a versatile therapy.”
Lima has specialized in geriatric massage for the past five years, and while the healing medium can serve all ages, he finds it especially helpful for older generations. From stroke recovery to improving balance, the benefits of massage therapy for seniors are seemingly boundless. But because our articles can’t be boundless, we’ve condensed the primary benefits into a very bounded list of ten.
Top 10 Benefits of Massage Therapy for Seniors
- Increases blood flow to limbs – “Increasing circulation is the most important benefit for seniors,” says Lima, “Good circulation can become increasingly difficult as we age, and massage therapy really helps the flow of the blood into the limbs.”
- Improves balance and gait – Falling is consistently listed as one of the top concerns for seniors, as our bones tend to become more infirm as we get older. Due to massage’s ability to increase blood flow to the limbs, it helps to improve proprioception, or the sense of relative position of body parts, thus improving our balance and reducing our chances of falling.
- Softens hard muscles and tissues – As we age, we generally become less active and so our muscles harden and get tighter. Massage helps to soften muscles and tissues by increasing blood flow to the areas and ultimately reducing overall muscle tension.
- Produces feelings of caring and comfort – Some people enjoy massage because it can produce feelings of caring and connection. According to Lima, “Many seniors are touch-deprived due to the loss of a spouse or partner. The touch of massage really helps them to relax.”
- Stimulates the nervous system – “Massage therapy releases endorphins, hormones and neurotransmitters that are beneficial for the functioning of the nervous system,” says Lima. Research has continually supported that claim, showing how therapeutic massage helps produce hormones that have enormous benefits on the body, including serotonin and dopamine (the happy hormone).
- Eases stroke recovery – It used to be that bed rest was prescribed for up to 48 hours after a stroke, for fear of triggering another one. But that stance has flipped poles and now, following a stroke, seniors are advised to get up and moving again. A major aid to this is massage therapy because it stimulates affected areas, focusing on anything that might be paralyzed.
- Increase flexibility – As our aging muscles tighten due to inactivity, it’s important to help them relax. Massage therapy softens up tight muscles and joints, enabling a wider range of motion in the activities of daily living.
- Improves sleep – The relaxation benefit of massage extends well beyond the massage table. Lima has seen cases where therapeutic massage has helped some of his patients with dementia sleep through the night when they otherwise wouldn’t.
- Immune support – “In my experience, people who get massages are sick far less than people who don’t,” says Lima. “Massage releases a lot of toxins and greatly supports the functioning of the immune system.”
- Relieves arthritic pain – “Massage isn’t ever going to cure arthritis,” says Lima, “but it helps to relieve the burning conditions.” Focusing on increased blood flow to the joints and warming affected areas has proven benefits in pain relief for those suffering from arthritis.
How to Enhance the Benefits of Massage Therapy
Coupling massage therapy with other relaxing and preventative measures helps to enhance its positive effects. Activities like Tai Chi, craniosacral therapy and meditation can all help to decrease the negative effects of stress on the body.
Lima also works closely with occupational and physical therapists for many of his patients, further enhancing the benefits of this healing medium.
“Each time I apply pressure, I push all your blood through your heart so it’s filtered. It’s almost like getting an oil change,” he says, laughing.
At Judson, we offer massage therapy at all three of our retirement communities.