Deciphering the Massage Menu

Swedish or shiatsu? Deep tissue or reflexology? How my quest for more energy, less pain and a little more sleep led me to a massage therapy tool—and nirvana.

(Getty Images)

Recently, I fell hard for the notion that 50 was the new 40. Never mind that I'm already past the milestone; reality is a tough pill to swallow. Adopting a "young at heart" mindset wasn't too difficult. After all, I was well into my 30s before I had kids (the third one arrived just a few days before I had to blow out a then-whopping 41 birthday candles), so the whole idea of embracing my inner child was pretty much my daily life. What didn't feel so young, however, was my body.

Getting up from a chair had become a two-step process—a stiff and sore lower back made it hard to just stand up and move. By necessity, my post-workout cool-down routine often took longer than my actual gym class. And no matter how often I begged my husband to rub my neck and shoulders, they were forever tight.

What else didn't feel so young anymore? My outlook. Somewhere along the way, my sighs got a little louder and longer. My footsteps morphed into foot stomps. I even had to break down and buy a larger French press because one pot of caffeine no longer cut it. The final blow happened when one of my girls, on her 11th birthday, said to me, "I don't want to get older because older means grumpy, like you."

Clearly some kind of a change was in order if I was going to pull off the "50 is the new 40" vibe. So naturally I turned to social media: Book a girl's weekend. Take up CrossFit. Try juicing. Give up Netflix. Go on a cleanse. My "friends" had a lot of advice. And some of it actually sounded useful, like the wisdom of Faith, who convinced me that massage wasn't just an indulgent way to pamper myself once a year. (Hot stones rubbed on my back followed by a chocolate martini chaser—pure bliss.) Faith admitted that she wasn't the best at taking many preventative treatments to heart, but insisted that she was fiercely loyal to her monthly massage, a combination of deep tissue for tension and cranial sacral therapy for sinus troubles.

Deep tissue I'd heard of, but cranial sacral was a new one to me. I didn't even realize the scalp had muscles. Faith spoke of ending her sessions feeling as if she'd had a 10-hour sleep, focused and clear and ready to take on the world. "It's very grounding and clearing," she enthused. "I feel like I gain a few IQ points every session."


Meanwhile, other friends began to chime in with their own massage success stories. Mike said getting a massage before chiropractor appointments helps the effects of the adjustment last longer. Mohsen told me his weekly sports massage is the only thing that lets him continue running long distances without cramping. Hmm … I was beginning to think I'd been doing my body a disservice all these years. Hoping it wasn't too late to turn things around, I set out to discover the health and well-being benefits of massage for myself. What I learned turned around my thinking and definitely brought me a few steps closer to that elusive 40-year-old mindset. See for yourself.

The granddaddy of massage: Swedish

The word "massage" literally means "to touch." There's archeological evidence of massage for just about every ancient civilization—from tomb paintings in Egyptian pyramids showing men getting their hands and feet kneaded, to references in the earliest recorded texts out of China. Mention the word today and Swedish massage is what first comes to mind; it's the technique of applying gentle but firm pressure in a flowing manner to ease tension and loosen muscles. Embracing the upside of this massage form is easy. After just a few minutes, I'm relaxed and at ease. Later on, I learn that regular massage has a host of science-backed benefits that go far beyond the ahhs: There's evidence showing it helps control blood pressure, improves circulation so more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to cells, and promotes an overall sense of emotional well-being that's been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.

Its close cousin: Shiatsu

Rooted in Japan, this form of massage uses a combination of kneading, pressing, tapping and stretching (without oils and while clothed) to access the body's energy source, what's known as the Qi. Whether or not it does that, I can't say for sure (the science is limited), but I do like the idea of reducing my stress and fighting fatigue. Shiatsu practitioners are hard to find near me, so I picked up the Wahl Deep Tissue Percussion Therapeutic Massager, which has interchangeable attachment heads to vary the type of pressure. The Flat Disc proved good for longer, fluid strokes, while the Four-Finger Flex head mimicked a kneading action. I found the device was a great way to feel less guilty when I wanted to zone out in front of the TV. A relaxing, full-body massage was at my fingertips, and I didn't miss a minute of "Life in Pieces."

Level up: Deep tissue

I quickly learned that this form is no joke. The buried layers of my muscles and connective tissue are the target of deep tissue massage, so the pressure is more deliberate. I'd be lying if I told you a deep tissue massage was blissful, but, man, does this do the trick for my knotted-up neck and nagging shoulder pain. It was so helpful, in fact, that I didn't want to have to tough it out for the weeks in between sessions with a therapist (my health insurance is good, but not massage-every-week good!). With the Wahl Deep Tissue Percussion Therapeutic Massager, I didn't have to wait. In fact, when I use it daily it keeps that thickness and tightness in my shoulders in check. It also helps me stretch out the muscles in the back of my legs after I exercise. The device lets me adjust the intensity, but I don't mess around and ramp it up right away. The best feature for me is what's known as the rapid "tapotement" (or tapping) motion. Therapists call this the percussion stroke, and it aggressively goes after my knots and increases blood circulation in that area. Let's call it tough love.

Feet first: Reflexology

Remember the early days of a budding relationship, when you rub each other's feet and all seems right with the world? Forget all that. Once I tried reflexology, any old foot rub would no longer do. Turns out the true way to right all that's wrong in my little corner of the world was to zero in on my reflex points. With reflexology (an ancient art that dates back 5,000 years), a steady, gentle pressure gets applied to key points on my feet that are connected to other organs. In time, the steady pressure can correct pain and other problems with correlating body parts. For example, the stomach corresponds to a point on the left arch, so applying pressure there can aid stomach woes. Genius. My Wahl Deep Tissue Percussion Therapeutic Massager isn't an exact substitute for reflexology (it's not recommended for use on the toes, heels or the top of the foot), but it can go to work on the arches and soles. Here, the Accupoint attachment is my go-to tool. These days, I dial down the pressure and include a brief foot massage in my pre-bed routine. It helps me wind down and push the day's angst aside. Can you think of a better way to end the day?

No matter what style of massage I'm in the mood for—or my body aches for—I'm sold on its benefits. Did I shed my grumpy persona? Maybe. Can I claim a more youthful spirit? I think so. What I do know for sure is that I've found a way to stay ahead of nagging pain. Like I said up top: nirvana.

Tags: health