Stress Management by Physical Activities vs. Massage Therapy

by: Boris Prilutsky

Nowadays no one in medical society would argue the significance and the necessity of stress management. Many surveys and researches suggest that between 60 to 80 percent of doctor visit are related to constant exposure to stress. The real question is what method should be considered the most effective in stress management as well as how to make it available for general public.

In regards to managing stress most doctors nowadays recommend physical activities. Yet according to many articles, TV and radio shows on the subject, most of the experts do not specify the optimum dosage of such physical activities that provide the maximum health benefits including stress management. Routinely the advice is: the more the marrier.

Since the adolescence I used to be a high-ranking competitive athlete and served my mandatory army draft in the sports club of the former Soviet Union Army. This Army Sports Club used to be the main camp for preparation of Olympic national teams. Our coaches used to push us to the limit. The practice session would not have stopped until the heart rate would reach 210-220 times per minute, which for young and well trained athletes means a lot of hard work. We used to practice six hours daily: 3 hours before noon and 3 hours in the evening.

There is much scientific data to conclude that such intense workouts, those required by professional sports, contribute to health in rather harmful way. In our case in sports clubs as well as on the national team level, this detrimental factor was offset by implementing the mandatory rehabilitation from overtraining in the form of post event sports massage, neuro-muscular reeducation training, post-isometric relaxation techniques, etc. These rehabilitative means minimized over training damages to the body, prevented sports related injuries and increased longevity of athletes in professional sports.

Nowadays when I observe the work out routines of many sports enthusiasts in gyms, it reminds me of the way we used to be forced to work out in the former Soviet Union Army sports clubs, with the only difference of not receiving the constant mandatory rehabilitation.

By working out so hard and not receiving rehabilitating treatments for over-training sports enthusiasts expose themselves to side effects such as the muscular pathology, instability of joints and more.

In no case I’m advocating a notion that a physical activity is a negative contributor to human health. But unless it is “used in moderation” it would do more harm than good. Today as we’re discussing ”Stress management by physical activities vs. massage therapy” I’d like to stress this fact before we venture into the mechanism of stress that is so debilitating to human health.

Is it necessary to manage stress or will the body self-regulate itself?

Nowadays, modern society is suffering significantly from the negative effects of stress. Stress-related illnesses include heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, clinical depression, tension headaches, sleeping disorders and more.

In the recent years, many statistical and survey data indicate that severe side effects of stress are gradually debilitating more and more people. It should be noted that the U.S. economy is losing $300 billion dollars annually in costs arising from stress-related illnesses.

In order to have a clear understanding of the power of stress management massage, it is important to understand the mechanism of the negative side effects of stress on the human body. Imagine being confronted by an aggressive dog that is ready to attack you. The human body response to such a shocking stress is the “fight or flight” reflex, expressed by a sharp increase in breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormone production increase. The above-mentioned processes are results of over-activity of the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system.

The balance of the activities between the sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems is the mark of a good health. Conversely, imbalance of activities of these nervous systems is equal to illnesses. In our stressful daily life routine, stress-causing factors (not only those such as in the dog attack example, but also small things like the news headlines of tragedies and disasters, job stress, financial responsibilities and many other factors, little by little increasingly impinge on our health, resulting in high blood pressure, clinical depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart attacks, tension headaches etc. By further comparing stress management resulting from self-stress management massage vs. physically activities, I’ll try to explain why massage is the most powerful method in healthcare as far as its capability to manage stress, prevent the development of most modern diseases and significantly improve quality of life.

Stress and Cardiovascular Abnormalities

Arteries carry a sufficient quantity of smooth muscles and nerves to contract as well as dilate. As I stated before, stress factors cause increased activities of the sympathetic nervous system, which result in vasoconstriction. Constricted vessels cause an increase in blood pressure and significant amplification of peripheral vascular resistance, which is the main opponent to cardiac work. This means the heart must not only perform its non-stop duty of pumping blood to all body systems, but it must also work extra hard to overcome the added peripheral vascular resistance.

With time, this overload of cardiac work leads to heart attacks and other heart diseases related to exhaustion of the cardiac muscle or cardiac connective tissue. Also, elevated levels of cardiac work demands a greater amount of arterial blood supply, which is unavailable in the presence of vasoconstriction. Constant vasoconstriction and high blood pressure accelerates the development of arteriosclerosis. In turn, arteriosclerosis can be the main cause for heart diseases, kidney diseases, and strokes. Further, I will explain in details how massage as well as self-massage depresses sympathetic nervous activities causing vasodilation, reduction of blood pressure, and decrease in cardiac work, decrease in stress hormones production and more.

Stress and clinical depression

An additional stress related phenomenon that supports all negative reactions of our body to stress is an increased production of stress hormones. Overload of cardiac work needs the support of stress hormones. Being constantly overstressed, the central nervous system is excited sometimes to a point when it cannot take it anymore. At this point, as an act of defense, the centers cause a reduction of the amount and activities of serotonin within brain. One of the twelve neurotransmitters, serotonin is largely responsible for our waking state. Reduction of the quantities and activities of serotonin in the brain is clinically expressed as depression.
Stress management massage causes multiple positive changes in the functions of organs and systems, cutting back stress hormone production and increasing the production of endorphins. With time, this will allow the serotonin activities to be restored and the depressed condition will improve. It is very important to understand that massage therapy tremendously helps to prevent the development of clinical depression. From the very first treatment, the positive changes occur in the functions of organs and systems, and relegate the factors that constantly bombard and excite the central nervous system.

Stress and diabetes type 2

As you understood stress significantly increases cardio work. Increased cardio work demands increase in stress hormone production. The increased production of stress hormones is causing significant elevation of receptor resistance to insulin, resulting in the prolonged increased glucose level in blood in other words diabetes. Stress management massage performed few times weakly, is depressing production of stress hormones, which in turn will allow to these special receptors to restore the normal reaction to insulin.
Relaxation versus stress management.

Stress management means more than simple relaxation. A sense or feeling of relaxation is only one of the expressions of stress management. For example, an overstressed person (who under pre-session hemodynamic studies) will demonstrate higher blood pressure, faster heart rate, increased peripheral vascular resistance & increased “not normal” left cardiac work), can sit in a dark room with a peaceful, soothing ambience and soft relaxing music for one hour, after which, he or she will report a nice relaxed feeling. But post-session hemodynamics study will show the effects of this relaxation session to be only a small reduction of peripheral vascular resistance, blood pressure, heart rate, etc.

Health benefits of sports activities.

There are many benefits from being physically active; movement is life. Cardiovascular activities will make your heart stronger, will reduce cholesterol level and will stimulate production of the endorphins, which in turn will contribute to feeling of relaxation, happiness, etc. This is a lot. But the question remains… how much do sports activities contribute to the increase of the threshold baroreceptors, which are responsible for vasoconstriction (high blood pressure) and vasodilation? Not much. This is crucial factor in management of stress. On the other hand, stress management massage causes measurably significant positive changes in functions of organs and systems at the same time resetting the threshold of baroreceptors and proprioceptors to the higher level, which allow a person to deal with stressful routine without having sleepless nights, episodes of anxieties and to experience relaxation sensation as well.

Physiological effect of massage on the human body

Reflex factor is the main power of massage therapy. That’s why one can call “massage” reflexive therapy. By mobilizing skin, connective and muscular tissue we deform the proprioreceptors, which in turn create action potentials (electrical activities) that through neurological pathways reaching motor and vasomotor centers. As a reflex (involuntary reaction of organs and systems to original stimuli) the body responds by expressing all positive changes that I mentioned earlier. Proprioceptors that respond to environmental stimuli carry electrical potential that in the moment of deformation cause electrical charge stream and stimulate central nervous system to the healthy state of the human body. Russian physician, Prof. Anatoli Sherbak, initially proposed the protocol for the stress management massage. In the early 60s, this method was perfected in former city of Leningrad Lesgafte School of Physical Rehabilitation. Initially, scientists tried to develop a protocol that would be most effective for the rehabilitation of over strained Olympic athletes. What they found out was that the ultimate set of technical approaches, the same that I propose, could also be extremely effective for stress management. In 1964, a group of scientists finally proposed an optimal protocol for stress management. 140 professional athletes participated in this study. The research scientists took and analyzed data from hemodynamics studies, which include reflections of left cardiac work, degree of vasoconstriction, electroencelography, EMG (electromyography studies), hematocrit, etc.Not to overload you with references to scientific data, I wanted you to know that my explanation is based on scientific researcher data.


Moderate exercise is beneficial for human health, but the effect of exercise on the negative side effects of stress are negligible. At the same time by applying self-massage techniques, we break the vicious cycle that leads to the developments of illnesses related to stress.

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