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Aging Gracefully – A great backrub might just be the ticket

When I was 13, I thought my daddy looked like the Six Million Dollar Man. He not only favored him tremendously, but he, it seemed to me, could do just about anything.

If you’re over age 50, you might remember the actor, Lee Majors, whom us women (and 13 year olds) thought was handsome. But, on the show, part of the charisma and charm was that he possessed superhuman strength due to bionic implants.

Now, I’m not saying my daddy was superhuman, but he was vibrant and energetic and still is at age 81. In fact, I’ve always thought of him as young because he is seemingly healthy even after two hip replacements and back surgeries.

When you write a column like this, you begin to notice people who seem to be “alive,” mentally and physically, even at mature ages. And I have noticed my daddy, William “Bill” Leath, I’m proud to say, who has practiced good health for years; not over the top, but just some practical activities that, I believe, have helped him stay young at heart, at least to me.

We’re not inherently unlike each other—both type A, driven to succeed, and self-motivated to contribute 120%. But along with that can sometimes come mountains of stress.

Dad established and maintained a successful industrial design and advertising company until he retired. His stress was off the charts as he not only worked with manufacturers to supply new designs to clients, but also had to “sell” them even before he knew he would gain their business. He secured some hefty ones, too, such as Little Debbie, Legg’s Hose and Flowers Baking. He would travel a lot and told me that oftentimes he would work on an account for five years before the business was awarded. Talk about stress!

So, I asked my dad the other day how he kept himself thinking young, looking good and even keeled and how he dealt with the stresses of supporting a family and building a successful yet intense business all those years. He said, “Well, I eat fairly healthy, I exercise when I can and I like to get a massage.” What? A massage? I always felt like it was an “add on” or luxury that, for me, was indulgent. I was surprised to hear that getting a regularly scheduled massage was one of the main activities he not only enjoyed, but also felt alleviated much of his stress. He said it helped him relax and subdue the cares of the business. And he’s been consistently getting them for 17 years.

Lori Leath Smith with her father, William (Bill) Leath.

As I pondered this, I realized that there have been times when a simple shoulder rub from a friend made me feel great. You probably know what I’m talking about. Even when I was little, my friends used to massage each other’s shoulders for fun. I never realized there was more to it than simply feeling good.

In doing a little research, I found out there IS more to the massage world than just a good back rub! And it’s exciting, especially for those of us receiving AARP letters in the mail.

My friend, April Gallagher at Beach Ready Spa in Seaside, was ready to offer some guidance on massage. She is a licensed massage therapist and has been practicing at Beach Ready Spa for many years. To begin with, April says that the gentle caress of massage can relieve tension from my muscles, ebb away stress, and leave me feeling both physically and mentally rejuvenated. Just that one statement and I was all in — I had to try it for myself!

From the moment I walked into Beach Ready Spa, I felt at ease. “We want people to feel comfortable in their own bodies,” she said. All my senses were piqued as heavenly scents emanated from the hallway. And I saw joy from both staff and other patrons. April said the scents and quiet tone all contribute to the experience they want their clients to achieve.

She explained there were varied options that are custom-blended for each visitor. There’s detoxing and hydrating, dual purpose, deep tissue, therapeutic, body scrub or relaxation massages, according to needs and preferences. I was delighted and wanted to experience one of each! But, because of my busy schedule, I chose her recommendation of one that would help me relax, alleviate stress and leave me feeling refreshed. She analyzed my needs and customized the experience just for me, including choosing a scent based on my preferences. “All your senses are piqued; your nose knows the smell you need,” she said. “And our goal is to enhance your experience in a way that is tailored just for you.” How much better does it get?

As my time commenced, April explained that getting a massage can be a reset for my body and a skilled massage therapist’s touch can induce calmness, which can have a truly positive impact on the overall function of the body. After 10 minutes of this, April let me know that my para-sympathetic nervous system had been activated, letting my body know it was safe to relax. “If done properly,” said April, “massage can take you out of stressful situations and nurture body, mind and spirit. It contributes to a balanced approach to health, and not just the physical.” She further explained that if I didn’t do something to counteract my Type A tendencies, I could experience cortisol retention causing weight gain and a slower digestive system. “When you become anxious in a situation, for example, your body can sometimes think it has to flee, and it will store fat.” Yuck!

When she stated that, I took note. I’ve worked too hard to allow all those pounds to creep back in due to stressful situations. Just as my dad did, I have a demanding lifestyle, and now the light bulb has gone off. I know I need to regularly counteract the stress with the opposite — as we all do.

Through my research, I’ve learned that massages can literally de-stress me and, as a byproduct, help me look younger. It’s even regarded as the “number-one stress reliever” by a celebrity massage therapist, Dr. Dot. Further, several studies throughout the years have found massage therapy to reduce heart rate, cortisone levels and blood pressure while also affording better sleep quality and reducing migraine headaches.

Included in stress management techniques, massage can contribute tremendously to overall wellness and help relieve worries, counteract stiffness, manage anxiety, aid in pain management, assist in treatment of cancer, improve immune system function, and aid in blood pressure regulation. “Massage has a clear role to play in reducing stress and helping people learn to recognize early stressful symptoms as compared with a more relaxed and less stressed state,” says Tim Noonan, Consultant, Speaker and Coach (timnoonan.com.au). “Massage is non-invasive, medication-free and gentle,” says April. “It decreases levels of cortisol and increases levels of serotonin and dopamine, causing the brain to relax and the body to sleep more peacefully.”

“If we speculate that stress, (arguably one of the most wide-spread illnesses in Western society) is often associated with feelings of rejection or because of a sense of lack of support at work or home, then it is understandable that massage (a form of therapeutic comforting and acceptance by the practitioner to the client) has the potential to have a very positive impact on reducing the levels of stress, thus allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take hold during the massage and perhaps afterwards,” says Noonan.

April enlightened me that managing stress is critical to maintaining a youthful appearance as well. “When we are stressed, our bodies can become inflamed,” she said, “decreasing the time we have for cellular regeneration and proper digestion.” I learned that when my digestion is sluggish, my body can’t absorb and utilize essential nutrients as well which could mean a decrease in healthy skin glow, hair and strong nails.”

Even a simple hand rub has beautiful benefits. According to the National Institutes of Health, a breadth and depth of research points to the long-term health benefits of touch. Touch triggers the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, which is both released into the bloodstream and stored in the brain. This hormone performs a number of different physiological functions, including reducing stress levels, lowering blood pressure, increasing pain tolerance, and boosting mood. The benefits of touch start the moment we’re born, according to this research: preterm newborns who received brief sessions of touch therapy during a five- to 10-day duration gained nearly 50 percent more weight than those for whom touch therapy was not part of their medical treatment plan.

April said I should accept treatment from a massage therapist who has the following qualities:

  • A license or certification to practice massage therapy in my state.
  • Experience in the form of massage that will benefit me the most. (All of Beach Ready Spa’s therapists have years of experience.)
  • An agreeable attitude that helps me feel comfortable and relaxed during the massage.

Of course, there are many different kinds of massage—only some will meet your needs, and massage therapists choose to become experienced in specific ones. Below are some of the most common:

  • Swedish massage. This is the most common, but therapeutic and incorporates gentle kneading and long strokes. Maybe this is why I’ve heard the Swedes are among the happiest people on Earth!
  • Deep-tissue massage. As the name suggests, this form digs slow and deep to provide relief from discomfort in connective tissues and deep muscles.
  • Trigger point massage. By focusing on specific areas of your muscles, this targeted technique can provide relief in sensitive spots.

In addition to its many health benefits, massage has one strong selling point for me: it feels terrific. If, as I “age gracefully,” massage can help me effectively cope with life’s uncertainties and positively affect my body’s systems, then I want to continue.

If stress can contribute to aging emotionally and physically, it seems massage therapy is one healthy contribution to help counteract it. I’d rather help minimize cellular aging and help myself appear more vibrant and alive as opposed to looking older than I am. I’d rather project a peaceful and even-keeled influence inwardly as well as on others. And I sure do want to feel fantastic, reset and balanced. Perhaps massage won’t give me superhuman powers, but I’ve come to believe that consistent participation can go a long way in maintaining a healthy outlook on life and lifestyle in general.

April says a massage once a month is good consistency to help keep stress levels low. So, I’m going to do my best to work that into my demanding schedule. And, daddy, thank you for your advice. I hope to achieve the positive outlook and physical vibrancy you’ve always held. What a great example!

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