Massage Therapy and Weight Loss

Posted on: Sun, 11/16/2014 - 2:36am By: Alice

I love massage. I’m passionate about it. I think it has many benefits and a lot of unrealized potential. I think it’s so awesome that I see no need to exaggerate or make unsupported claims. I am also committed to client-centered practice and part of that commitment is providing honest, accurate information.

The world of weight loss is, unfortunately, full of misleading, exaggerated, and completely bogus claims. There’s a large population that struggles with weight and it’s an easy population to exploit for profit. As a result, fraud is rampant in the weight-loss industry. Unfortunately, predatory misinformation offering false promises of easy weight loss has spilled over to include massage.

I hate to disappoint anyone but there is no evidence to support the claim that massage will cause you to lose weight.

I was mostly unaware of these claims until recently when someone drew attention to them. Who on earth, I wondered, would have the audacity to make such claims? A Google search quickly revealed there is no shortage of people willing to say that massage will cause you to lose unwanted pounds. I don’t know where they get these ideas but I don’t want to be associated with unfounded, exploitive claims.

Exactly how do they claim that massage might work to cause weight loss?

"Toxins"

Yes, the infamous “t” word. Apparently some claim that weight gain is due to an accumulation of vague “toxins” and that massage will “flush" them out. Both claims are completely unsupported by evidence. Massage is wonderful but it is not a solution to an overload of imaginary toxins.

Breaking up fat cells?

Another claim is that massage will break up fat cells and then massage will “flush” them out. I can't imagine massage vigorous enough to rupture fat cells. If it were possible, it would probably leave your entire body covered with bruises. Unfortunately, losing weight and keeping it off is going to take more effort than lying on a table and getting massage. There’s no evidence that massage will break up and get rid of adipose tissue. How I wish it were true!

Passive workout?

Yes, some people claim that massage "works" the muscles in a manner equivalent to a workout. Lying quietly on a table and relaxing during a full-body massage leaves you feeling great, but it is not the equivalent of working out at the gym, not even close. You’re lying quietly and relaxing, not making your body work hard! Massage and exercise are both great and both can leave you feeling good, but they are not the same thing. Anyone who says passive activity is equivalent to a workout is either seriously misinformed or just trying to lighten your wallet, not your weight.

So, what can we say about massage? Is there any place for massage in a sensible weight loss program?

Weight management should be part of an overall approach of taking care of yourself: making good choices about food, getting enough sleep, getting exercise, cultivating healthy relationships and social interaction. Massage can certainly fit into your self-care program.

Depression, anxiety, and weight gain

It’s long been known that depression, anxiety, and weight gain often occur together and they may have some relationship. Some people, in response to stress or anxiety, may eat to soothe themselves. It has been speculated that the lack of physical activity that often accompanies depression may lead to weight gain, but recent research suggests that the depression itself may lead to weight gain. There is no research to suggest that massage may help to control weight gain, but since massage has been shown to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, some individuals might want to explore if the mood-stabilizing effects of massage could help them stay on track with developing better eating habits. For those feeling paralyzed by depression, relief of symptoms might make physical activity more appealing which itself has both mood and weight regulating effects.

Chronic pain, exercise, and weight gain

I haven’t explored if there is research on chronic pain and weight gain, but certainly inactivity can lead to weight gain and chronic pain can interfere with leading an active life.  Over the years a number of clients have reported they had formerly been physically active until an injury led to chronic pain that made physical activity difficult and unpleasant. Indeed, it can become a vicious cycle. Chronic pain can inhibit physical acitivity and lack of exercise can aggravate chronic pain. By reducing pain, massage might make it easier to engage in physical activity again.

Rewarding yourself with massage

Food is fun. When we want to celebrate, food is often part of how we celebrate. We often reward ourselves in big and little ways with food, and usually it's calorie-dense food. (When did anyone ever say, "When I reach my goal, I'm going to treat myself to a big bowl of steamed broccoli!"?)  For those trying to control their weight, it's good to find other ways to reward yourself. Treating yourself to massage when you have reached a goal could be an incentive that helps you stay with your program. You don’t have to wait until you have reached your target weight, you can do it as you take steps along the way to celebrate your small victories.

Body awareness and a sense of well-being

I think one of the best benefits of massage is that it can enhance body awareness and leave us with a general sense of well-being. When we feel strained and hurried, we often ignore our bodies and lose body awareness. During times of stress it's easy to succumb to bad eating habits, bad sleeping habits, and generally stop taking care of ourselves at a time we need it most. By taking time to stop, relax, and get back in touch with how our body feels, we can regain a sense of body awareness and a general sense of well-being. We can remember what it is like to feel good and that may inspire us to maintain the good feeling by eating well. Feeling in touch with and at ease in our body may encourage us to move more again.

No matter what shape your body is in

At this point I should mention something important: please don’t ever let your weight stop you from getting massage. Too often I’ve heard someone say that their discomfort with their body stopped them from getting massage. This is a very sad thing to hear. Please don’t deny yourself the enjoyment and the benefits of massage because you think your body is not good enough. You are fine just the way that you are. A good, professional massage therapist should welcome people of all shapes and sizes. We see all kinds of bodies and none of them are perfect, even the ones that appear to look perfect. Massage therapist Dale Favier wrote a beautiful essay that expresses many of my own sentiments, that you are perfect just the way you are right now.

 

"I’ll tell you what people look like, really: they look like flames. Or like the stars, on a clear night in the wilderness." ~ Dale Favier

If you have doubts about finding a massage therapist with whom you can feel comfortable, ask for a referral from a trusted friend or health care professional. If you ever feel that you are treated disrespectfully because of your size or for any other reason, find another therapist who will treat you with respect. You deserve to feel good and when you feel good, everything else in life is a little bit easier.

If you are struggling to control your weight, don’t waste time and money with fads or people who make promises that are too good to be true. You’ll just end up discouraged when it fails. Talk to your doctor or call your local hospital and find out where you can get trustworthy information about creating a reasonable and sustainable plan for yourself.

Massage may not make you lose weight, but by helping you feel good physically and emotionally, it might help you stay on track. It can be a part of your commitment to taking good care of yourself.

 

My FaceBook friend Keith Eric Grant, who is a massage therapist and a working scientist who is careful with his words, made a comment that I think sums up exactly my point: 

"Massage could result in one losing weight, if it results in greater body awareness which in turn results in dietary and activity changes. Milton Erickson, for example, was a master at targeting seemingly small changes that cascaded into large ultimate life changes. The effect is a possibility, but not one certain or direct enough to ethically advertise."

He later added:

"I'll add that while I wrote awareness, the deeper meaning can include a positive change in perception of the body that leads to lifestyle changes."

I agree wholeheartedly and in this respect, I think massage could help a person make changes in their life that could result in better diet, exercise, sleep patterns, stress levels, etc. 

Since I wrote the article, I've also read a few things about how lack of sleep can contribute to weight gain and so can stress. By helping to counteract these problems, massage might help one maintain a healthy weight. 

But, sadly, we can't massage away body fat.