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The Good Life: The Massage Bonus

MassageThere are few things better in life than slipping out of a fluffy robe, snuggling in between a set of heated sheets and barely mumbling a reply to “Do you prefer light or medium pressure?” as you drift into a massage-induced state of half-conscious bliss.

But getting a massage can do a lot more for you than just send you off to la-la land in 50- to 80-minute increments. There are real health benefits to a rub down, even if you aren’t an athlete.

I asked Bonnie DeFazio, spa supervisor at The Spa at Naples Bay Resort, to enlighten me. As she explains it, massage works to balance things out: It lowers levels of stress hormones and brings up those of the feel-good hormones serotonin and dopamine. Those changes slow heart rate, reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system and increase blood flow to muscles.

For those with more specific ailments—rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, for example—massage therapy can be extra valuable in managing pain. The Mayo Clinic even promotes it as an alternative treatment for cancer patients, not only for its pain-relieving benefits but also to reduce fatigue and anxiety. In the younger set, it’s been shown to improve asthma symptoms in children and help premature babies grow more quickly—all thanks to the power of touch.

On top of that, some spas also throw aromatherapy into the mix. The Spa at Naples Bay Resort incorporates it into all of its treatments, and not just because it smells nice. Just before my massage there, my therapist, Sue Thackston, produced a rack of vials filled with oils that combine scented essential oils to achieve specific therapeutic benefits, from balancing and energizing to strengthening and grounding. I chose the one called Fresh—a blend of linden blossom, cucumber and heliotrope—for its reputed soothing and cleansing qualities. Once in the room, it was a classic chicken-or -egg scenario: I couldn’t figure out whether I was more relaxed from inhaling my “soothing” selection that Sue had mixed with melted organic shea butter, or the fact that she had already begun working it into my neck and shoulders. It was nice in the moment, though it left me feeling what could be described at best as really, really moisturized and at worst as plain greasy (the one pitfall to a shea butter/essential oil cocktail).

On my way out, Sue told me to drink extra water over the next few hours. At my next stop, Stillwater Spa at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point in Estero, I got the same advice. The reason, explains Director of Spa Jennifer E. Licciardi, is to replenish fluids and flush out the toxins that massage releases into the lymph system. It’s pretty much what happens during exercise, albeit more passive.

The most common type of massage at Stillwater, Licciardi says, is the Swedish massage, which she describes as the standard relaxation massage. It involves five main strokes, including effleurage, a long, smooth, gliding stroke; tapotement, a quick, repetitive tapping; and petrissage, a kneading stroke. They’re all intended to manipulate the muscles. “That’s what massage is all about,” she says.

To that end, she says, there are other ways to attain similar benefits without booking yourself a standing weekly appointment at the spa. “Bob Hope had a massage every day of his life,” she says. (I’m immediately envious.) “That would be ideal, to have your muscles affected in one way or another every day. But there are other ways you can manipulate your musculature, whether it’s self-massage or just taking a walk on the beach and having the wind blow across your skin.”

For the average spa-goer, though, Licciardi says how frequently you require some time on the massage table depends on what you’re trying to remedy. “If you have an acute injury, you may want to receive massage on a more regular basis,” she says. “If you’re maintaining and you just want stress relief and minor ache-and-pain release, once every other week or once a month is beneficial.”

It seems to be catching on: About 8.3 percent of American adults partook in massage therapy in 2007, up from 5 percent five years earlier, a National Health Statistics report says. Licciardi agrees. “Doctors are now recommending massage to their clients, and insurance companies are becoming more open to reimbursing for massage therapy,” she says. “It was for luxury, and now it’s really being recognized for wellness.”

So, it seems, massage is the ultimate healthful trifecta: an hour or so of relieving pain, forgetting worries and indulging in a bit of luxury you don’t have to regret later. It doesn’t get more feel-good than that.



How can you be sure your time spent on the table is the best it can be? Jennifer E. Licciardi of Stillwater Spa and Bonnie DeFazio of The Spa at Naples Bay Resort offer their top tips.

  • Book your appointment with a licensed massage therapist at a licensed massage establishment, and find out what your particular therapist’s technical experience is—of course, the more, the better.
  • Communicate with the therapist what your specific needs are, from the amount of pressure you’re receiving to the temperature in the room. “Don’t be a martyr on the table,” Licciardi says. “Listen to your body.”
  • Arrive early for your appointment so you have time to relax and, if the facility offers it, take advantage of the sauna or steam room, which loosen your muscles and improve the results your therapist will be able to achieve.
  • If your budget doesn’t allow for frequent massages at pricier spas, consider seeking out a massage school or clinic. The Naples Academy of Beauty offers a 60-minute massage for just $30.
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