Hands-On Healing

A good back rub may do morefor your stress level than you think

Stress. It’s the usual suspect behind the neck aches, lower-back pain and clenched jaws of millions of American workers who are logging longer hours on the job. Although taking time to relax is often easier said than done, who couldn’t use a soothing massage in these harried days?

The pampering massages offer is a nice luxury, but science also supports its advantages. A recent study at the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute revealed that office massages alleviate job stress and can heighten alertness. Participants also reported feeling less depressed and more productive after just five weeks of chair massages.

Even if you can’t get a back rub with a coffee break, there is a flourishing industry that has outgrown its image of exclusivity on the one hand and seediness on the other. The American Massage Therapy Association estimates that U.S. consumers visit massage therapists 75 million times per year and spend $2-$4 billion for services. Several health insurance providers now cover massages, further evidence that it’s more than just a trend. It can be good medicine and besides that, it’s fun.

“There are so many benefits for the body that it’s hard to list them all,” says Patricia French, owner of Gazelle Beauty Center and Day Spain New York City. The ultimate goal is to stimulate circulation and to promote the release of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer.

Like at most full-service spas, Gazelle’s mainly black male and female clients have a host of rejuvenating options: Swedish massage is a technique of long strokes and kneading the superficial layers of the muscles, while Shiatsu massage is a Japanese-based method of finger pressure along invisible energy channels of the body. Shiatsu’s rough intensity works to prevent disease and is best performed on the floor but can also be done on a table.

Reflexology, another accupressure therapy, uses pressure points on the hands and feet that are thought to correspond to other parts of the body. Facials also soothe and have the added bonus of smoothing the razor bumps that affect many black men.

“Americans aren’t really into touch like Europeans and Asians,” says Bill Zanker, president and founder of the national chain of Great American Backrub stores. “We’re trying to say that it’s definitely OK to take care of yourself.” The storefronts attract walk-in customers for a mid-day, 15-minute back or foot rub that costs around $15. Day spas charge $60-$100 for a one-hour session and may feature added amenities such as robes and hot tea.

There are a lot of options, but the last thing a novice should do is to stress about what to try first. Keep this checklist in mind:

  • Do your homework. Ask friends and co-workers to recommend spas and specific massage therapists. Learn the spa’s ambiance and space ahead of time so that there are no surprises, such as issues about privacy in the changing rooms.
  • Getting background info is particularly important if you are entertaining clients. If you prefer to deal with someone who makes housecalls or you’d rather visit the
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