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Massaging your way to better health

By Michelle Osmond

Improving your health with massage dates back to early civilization and more recently has been used to prevent sport injuries. Massage has also been used as part of exercise warm up to help increase flexibility. But, people don’t always take the time to warm up before we exercise and not a lot of studies have been done on the physiological benefits and mechanisms of massage.

Some studies have been conducted on applying massage strictly to the main part of the muscle and those studies have usually consisted of six to 30 minute massages. But what if people could get the same benefits from a shorter massage targeted to a different part of the muscle?

Dr. David Behm and a team of researchers decided to find out if shorter massages, which would be more conducive to the time limitations of most warm ups and cool downs, could still improve people’s range of motion. Their study involved a novel massage technique, which focused only 10 and 30 seconds on the musculotendinous junction (where the muscle meets the tendon) of the calf muscle.

Prof. Mario Di Santo, head of the Chair of Gymnastics III and IV at the Instituto del Profesorado de Educación Física in Córdoba, Argentina, worked with Dr. Behm. “Mario used these techniques with athletes and rehabilitation patients to obtain a greater range of motion or flexibility. But the validity of this technique had never been documented,” said Dr. Behm who is the associate director of Graduate Studies and Research with the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation (HKR). “We already knew that having someone massage your leg or just paying attention to you can improve flexibility through a placebo effect. So, we scientifically evaluated the tendon massage and published the results.”

Dr. Behm and his team, which also included Dr. Tim Alkanani who is HKR’s research program coordinator, recruited 10 recreationally active women ranging from 21 to 36 years in age. They found significant increases in hip flexion range of motion with only 10 seconds (5.9 per cent) and 30 seconds (7.2 per cent) just by massaging the musculotendinous junction. It’s a finding that could be very important for athletes, coaches, fitness experts, rehabilitation patients and individuals who are very stiff due to injury, inactivity or disease. A therapy like this could help improve day to day activities as well as save time for athletes and the general population who say time constraints are a limitation to exercise and fitness.

“We’re already getting feedback from professionals who are implementing this technique. A massage therapist instructor from Ontario recently called me. He took the results from the study and applied it in his class. Every student received substantial increases in their flexibility. They plan on instituting this technique in their program,” noted Dr. Behm “This technique was used in isolation and not in conjunction with other stretching activities. It would also be interesting to investigate the effectiveness of this massage technique when used in a long-term stretching program.”

He and his colleagues have published the results of their study, which was supported in part by a research grant from the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.