This Review Originally Appeared in "Men's Exercise" written by Andy Troy, C.S.C.S.

Shiatsu, acupressure, Swedish, Rolfing ... whatever the style, massage has long been a part of many people's fitness and wellness routines. It has been used for over 3000 years throughout the world to medicate, relax and invigorate.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines massage as, “The systematic and scientific manipulation of body tissues, performed with the hands, for therapeutic effect on the nervous and muscular systems and on systemic circulation.” While there are likely as many styles of massage as there are practitioners, it's worth taking a look at the major players in order to get a broader understanding of the subject.

Acupressure. Developed in China, this style of massage can correctly be described as acupuncture without the needles. Pressure is applied to points in the body called meridians to alleviate blockages that allow toxins to build up, thereby restoring homeostasis (balance).

Shiatsu. Literally translated as finger pressure, Shiatsu is similar in many ways to acupressure. Developed in Japan, it uses pressure from the fingers to rebalance the body's energy, thereby improving the body's Chi (lifeforce).

Anma. A Japanese word, it literally translates into “massage.” Many believe that Shiatsu sprung from one of Anma's several distinctly different techniques.

Swedish. This is the classic Western style of massage. Its development is generally attributed to the Swedish doctor Per Henrik Ling. Its primary goal is to increase the blood's oxygen flow and release toxins trapped in the muscles. To this end, pressure is applied against the muscles in the same direction as the flow of blood returning to the heart.

Deep tissue. This style is similar in many ways to Swedish massage, but using pressure that is often far more intense. Its goal is to reach deeper layers of muscle than can be reached by traditional massage and, once there, to break up scar tissue that may have formed (thus restoring normal muscular function).

Sports massage. This is a blend of several other styles that has become increasingly popular. It is used before and after activity to improve performance and prevent injury.

Rolfing. Named for Dr. Ida P. Rolf, this system of soft tissue manipulation was developed over 50 years ago. Its proponents claim that it enhances neurological functioning, thereby facilitating more efficient use of one's muscles. Treatment, usually consisting of 10 one-hour sessions, attempts to loosen the connective tissue, thereby allowing muscles to move more freely.

Like many things in our media-frenzied society, the success of today's masseuse has a lot to do with marketing. According to Mauro Hernandez, a New York State-licensed massage therapist, the difference between working in a medical office setting (as he does) or in a spa setting (as many do) is significant. "In a spa setting, people go for the ambiance and just to feel good and relax," he explains. "This is compared to working at a chiropractor's office where people go because they really need to deal with certain back or neck issues. Also, in a chiropractor's office I'm able to build a rapport with my clients and work with them to deal with their health issues - unlike a spa, where sometimes your really don't even talk to your therapist for more than two minutes."

Today, this ancient art is dealing with the complications of Western societ throuhg licensing requirements that vary state to state. New York and Nebraska's 1000 hours of training are perhaps the most stringent, while California's are arguably the most lax. Liability insurance is also required in many states, as are credits in continuing education. A national certification exam now exists and is also a requirement in many states.

Practitioners are often members of organizations like the American Massage Therapy Association (AMTA) which boasts some 52,000 members in 27 countries. Founded in 1943, the AMTA's stated goal is to advance the art, science and practice of massage therapy.

Today's athlete has come to value the benefits of massage, with many gyms and sports franchises having a massage therapist on staff. It has been proven helpful not only in relieving pain and soreness resulting from physical activity, but also in improving circulation and range of motion. This, in turn, helps prevent injury and prepares athletes to perform maximally. It also helps speed recovery from delayed-onset muscle soreness, as well as injury. In addition, massage is a valuable tool in reducing stress, thereby allowing athletes to focus better. On the scientific front, recent studies have provided evidence that massage positively alters the body biochemically, decreasing levels of substances that are detrimental to achieving peak performance.

In closing, it is safe to say that massage – while not a cure-all – does indeed have value. If you're an athlete, weight lifter or even weekend warrior, it may help you perform better. If a higher quality of life is your goal, consider including it. In either case, it definitely shouldn't be ignored.

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