Many are aware that heart disease is the leading cause of death in America. As such, health advocates increasingly urge people to make positive lifestyle adjustments to prevent this outcome. While the most important cardiovascular disease prevention habits include not smoking, regular exercise and a heart-healthy diet, few recognize the niche massage therapy fills in maintaining heart health.
Jumping on board to receive regular massages may not seem to make good financial sense – especially during today’s economic hardships. However, looking at the bigger picture completely changes this financial perspective. In the March 2011 issue of the publication Circulation, the American Heart Association editorial board stated that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is responsible for 17 percent of national health expenditures. They also projected that costs in the U.S. from cardiovascular disease would triple by 2030, to more than $800 billion annually. Their findings that cardiovascular disease prevalence and costs would increase substantially led to the conclusion that effective prevention strategies are an absolute necessity.
As our understanding of how to prevent heart disease strengthens, healthful lifestyles are becoming the most trusted way to live a long life. The most prominent components of such a lifestyle include quitting smoking, eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly:
- Quitting Smoking – Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body, especially the heart and blood vessels. The chemicals in tobacco smoke harm blood cells, interfere with heart function and damage the structure and function of blood vessels. Cigarette smoke worsens atherosclerosis, raises blood pressure and damages the heart’s delicate tissues.
- Diet – What we eat has a big impact on the condition of the cardiovascular system. Maintaining a low-fat, high-fiber, antioxidant-rich, low-glycemic, preservative-free diet is one of the best ways to prevent inflammation and fatty plaque buildup in the body’s blood vessels.
- Exercise – One of the reasons behind America’s alarming rate of heart disease is the sedentary lifestyle that accompanies our increasingly technological culture.
Unfortunately, being inactive is a top risk factor for heart disease. Regular, aerobic exercise (20-30 minutes at least three times a week) improves blood circulation, strengthens the heart, lowers blood pressure and eases tension – all factors in lowering heart disease risk.
Although not on the American Heart Association’s official list of heart disease prevention tips, receiving regular massage is an ideal addition to quitting smoking, eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly. Already a well-known fact to massage therapists, Korean researchers found that massage had an impact on the autonomic nervous system – a system integrally tied to cardiovascular health. As published in Yonsei Medical Journal, regular massage therapy sessions were found to induce relaxation to the autonomic nervous system as confirmed by lowered cortisol and norepinephrine levels.
Our autonomic nervous system has two states; sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest). By increasing levels of cortisol and epinephrine as well as raising heart rate and blood pressure, the sympathetic nervous system helps mobilize the body for action when faced with a stressful situation. Staying in this state for a prolonged amount of time is a common problem in our modern society, and increases the likelihood of developing or worsening of heart disease.
Besides increasing blood circulation, the massage therapy strokes of effleurage, kneading and tapotement stimulate skin receptors that send messages of relaxation to the central nervous system. These reflexes cause vasodilation: where the blood vessels widen to decrease blood pressure and heart rate. As such, the massage strokes just described are known to aid hypertension – one of the most prominent forecasters of cardiovascular disease.
According to massage therapy and osteopathic medical expert Dale G. Alexander, LMT, MA, PhD, there is another way massage therapy can benefit heart health. In a recent Massage Today article, Alexander describes how massage can literally create more space for the heart within the thorax. In the article Alexander explains, “This is achieved by increasing the suppleness and length of the soft tissues both within the chest and those of the outer wall, enhancing the mobility of the thoracic joints, and by reducing the pressure within the cavity itself.” Based on this premise, freeing restrictions found in the sternum, rib and thoracic areas will help the heart function at maximum capacity, thus improving overall cardiovascular health.
In conjunction with avoiding cigarette smoke, eating a heart-healthy diet and exercising regularly, massage therapy is a valuable component to preventing heart disease. Massage therapy may not have been what the American Heart Association editorial board initially had in mind to reduce the national financial burden of cardiovascular disease. However, massage could be just the right addition to the lives of Americans to knock heart disease out of the top position for being the leading cause of death.
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