Does a massage count as exercise?

A common question many people have is whether getting a massage counts as exercise. There are a few key factors to consider when determining if massage therapy provides similar benefits as more traditional forms of exercise.

What is Exercise?

Exercise is defined as any physical activity that raises your heart rate and breathing. The key goals of exercise are:

  • Strengthen muscles and bones
  • Improve cardiovascular health
  • Burn calories
  • Enhance mental health
  • Increase flexibility

Exercise causes your body to use more oxygen while contracting muscles and moving joints. This increased demand kickstarts your cardiovascular system and metabolism.

Benefits of Exercise

Regular exercise provides the following proven benefits:

  • Weight loss & management – Exercise burns calories and boosts metabolism.
  • Disease prevention – Reduces risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.
  • Stronger bones & muscles – Weight-bearing exercise increases bone density and builds muscle mass.
  • Improved mood – Releases feel-good endorphins that boost mood and reduce anxiety/depression.
  • Increased energy – Exercise improves circulation, oxygen intake, and mitochondrial function for more energy.
  • Better sleep – Regular activity helps regulate sleep cycles so you fall asleep faster and stay asleep.

To gain the full rewards of exercise, experts recommend 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. This can come from a mix of exercises like brisk walking, swimming, strength training, yoga, sports, etc.

What Happens During a Massage?

During a massage session, a massage therapist manipulates the soft tissues and muscles in the body. They often use their hands, fingers, forearms, elbows or feet to apply pressure, but may use massage devices as well.

There are many different massage techniques including:

  • Swedish massage – Relaxation-focused strokes to warm up muscles.
  • Deep tissue massage – Deeper pressure to reach inner muscle layers.
  • Trigger point massage – Isolates taut muscle knots.
  • Sports massage – Pre/post workout rubdowns to prevent injury.
  • Shiatsu – Japanese massage using acupressure points.
  • Thai massage – Stretches and mobilizes the body.
  • Hot stone massage – Heated, smooth stones are placed on key points.

The massage technique used depends on your desired results. Sessions generally last 30-90 minutes and focus on problem areas. You remain clothed for certain massages like chair massage or Thai massage. For other types, you undress to your comfort level and lie on a table under a sheet.

Massage Benefits

Therapeutic massage offers the following benefits:

  • Lower stress – Massage promotes relaxation, calms the nervous system, and lowers cortisol.
  • Relieve anxiety & depression – The calming effects of massage ease anxiety and depression.
  • Decrease pain – Massage increases blood flow to reduce sore, tense muscles and joint pain.
  • Improve sleep – Massage encourages restful sleep and treats insomnia.
  • Boost immunity – Massage may support immune function by increasing circulation.
  • Headache relief – Massage techniques like trigger point therapy can relieve tension headaches.
  • Treat sports injuries – Massage enhances blood flow to heal strains, sprains and sore muscles.

Research confirms massage offers significant mental and physical benefits. However, the effects are temporary and require ongoing sessions to sustain results. Massage may complement an exercise routine but does not replace the need for regular activity.

Key Differences Between Massage & Exercise

While massage provides great benefits, there are some key differences between massage and exercise:

Massage Exercise
Passive form of therapy Active form of physical activity
Does not significantly increase heart rate or oxygen consumption Raises heart rate and boosts oxygen intake
Does not burn substantial calories Burns calories and boosts metabolism
Does not build muscle mass or strengthen bones Builds muscle, strengthens bones and joints
Temporary benefits Provides long-term benefits with regular practice
Does not improve cardiovascular fitness Boosts cardiovascular health

A key takeaway is that massage does not provide the same metabolic, cardiovascular and strength benefits as exercise. While massage offers many advantages, it should not serve as a replacement for regular physical activity.

Does Massage Qualify as Light Exercise?

Some forms of massage do require low-level physical activity from the client. Examples include:

  • Thai massage – Practitioner puts you through passive yoga poses and stretches.
  • Rolfing – The client actively engages muscles against the pressure.
  • Feldenkrais – Uses gentle motions to improve movement and posture.

These methods provide some circulation benefits and could be considered light exercise. However, the physical exertion is low compared to cardiovascular workouts that spike heart rate.

A study in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice examined heart rate during Thai massage. Results showed only a slight increase in heart rate compared to rest. The heart rate elevation with Thai massage was 40-50% lower than levels achieved during moderate exercise.

While select massage forms do incorporate movement, the exercise is not significant enough to produce substantial fitness improvements. The American Council on Exercise clarifies that massage does not provide a cardio workout.

Can Massage Enhance Exercise Performance?

Research indicates massage can support certain exercise goals when combined with a consistent workout regimen. Benefits for athletes and active individuals include:

  • Enhanced blood flow – Improves circulation of oxygen and nutrients to muscles.
  • Greater flexibility – Stretches tissues to expand range of motion.
  • Injury prevention – Helps prevent overuse injuries like strain or tendinitis.
  • Sore muscle relief – Speeds recovery by flushing out lactic acid buildup.
  • Pre-event conditioning – Prepares muscles for athletic performance.
  • Reduced muscle fatigue – Assists muscle recovery after strenuous exercise.

Utilizing massage to complement a consistent exercise program can enhance performance, increase flexibility, help prevent injury and accelerate workout recovery.

Should You Exercise Before or After a Massage?

Exercising before or after massage comes down to your main goal:

  • Pre-massage exercise – Slightly raises body temperature to make muscles more pliable and ready for massage work.
  • Post-massage exercise – Takes advantage of increased circulation, flexibility and reduced muscle tension from massage.

If your aim is injury prevention or enhanced athletic performance, a light warmup prior to massage may be beneficial. This preps your body for deeper massage work.

However, exercising immediately after a massage offers advantages as well. Massage boosts blood flow to oxygenate muscles, loosens connective tissue and flushes out lactic acid. Taking advantage of these effects can enhance your post-massage workout.

Talk to your massage therapist about timing recommendations based on your individual needs. You may find alternating between pre- and post-massage exercise most advantageous.

Incorporating Both Massage & Exercise

While massage does not equate to exercise, it can be incorporated with proper training to enhance your fitness regimen. Mixing regular massage and exercise provides optimal health benefits.

Aim to get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate cardio and strength training. This can include activities like running, swimming, cycling, lifting weights or high-intensity interval training. Support your workouts with regular massage sessions.

Target problem areas like sore muscles, limited flexibility or overuse injuries with massage. Strategic massage combined with consistent, challenging workouts gives maximum health and performance payoffs.

Consult a personal trainer or physical therapist to develop a customized exercise plan. Tell your massage therapist about your fitness goals so they can design complementary treatments.

With a balanced approach, you can enjoy prime benefits from both massage and exercise. Some key tips for combining both include:

  • Schedule massage after hard workouts when muscles are fatigued.
  • Focus massage on parts of the body conditioned during training.
  • Communicate with your providers to align massage and exercise plans.
  • Stay well-hydrated before and after sessions.
  • Listen to your body and allow proper rest between activities.

Key Takeaways

Here are some key summary points on how massage compares to exercise:

  • Massage does not provide nearly the same metabolic, cardiovascular and strength benefits as exercise.
  • Certain massage methods involve light physical activity, but this is not enough to boost fitness.
  • Massage can complement exercise by enhancing performance and aiding workout recovery.
  • Strategically scheduling massage before or after exercising offers specific benefits.
  • An exercise plan paired with regular massage works synergistically for optimal health.

The Bottom Line

Massage should not serve as a replacement for consistent exercise. While massage offers many advantages, only exercise provides lasting cardiovascular, strength, weight loss and metabolic enhancements.

However, massage can be a beneficial supplement to complement your workouts. Used strategically, massage before or after exercise can boost performance, speed recovery and help prevent injury.

Aim to meet exercise requirements through cardio and strength training 4-5 times per week. Get regular massage sessions targeting frequently used muscle groups. This integrated approach provides the most robust fitness and health benefits.

So while massage does not equate to exercise, it serves as an excellent addition to enhance your training, prevent overuse injuries and keep your body primed to perform at its best.

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