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The Mind-Body Benefits of Getting a Massage

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If you're like, well, everyone, you've probably flunked out of a New Year's resolution or two (or 20, but whatever). The annual stroke-of-midnight need to resolve something about yourself usually centers around one idea: to be better.

But what if the way to feel happier, improve your sleep, kill it at your workout routine—all of that better stuff—is right at your fingertips, or in this case, someone else's? The medium: massage. "Weekly massages seem to have a cumulative positive effect that is sustained over time," says Mark Rapaport, M.D., a professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, who has studied the perks of massage. But since it isn't likely you can hit up the spa all the time: "Data suggests that you can reap benefits from even a single massage," he adds.

To keep it real: Much of the research is preliminary. But many findings show that even just a 15-minute treatment can be a boon to your well-being, and whether you're a deep tissue kind of girl, or Swedish is more your style, you can reap serious blissed-out benefits. Now, weekly massages might get a little pricey, but monthly? You could probably swing a massage every 4 weeks through 2017, and your mind and body would be better off for it. If you need a little convincing, here's why regular massages are worth a shot.

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Massage alleviates pesky aches and pains.

Feeling sore after your daily run? (Do you need a sports massage?) "Massage may decrease acute inflammation due to overuse of muscles, so it may be very helpful in decreasing stiffness, pain, and inflammation," says Rapaport. Your masseuse isn't a magician—it's science. It works by helping to increase the traffic of pluripotent stem cells (master cells that are able to produce any tissue or cell your body needs to repair) to trouble spots, he says. 

Massage keeps sickness at bay.

Getting kneaded out could boost your body's immune system. "One of the benefits of massage is that it leads to an increase in the circulation of white blood cells," says Rapaport. And it's not just the cold-busting kinds of cells, but NK cells in particular, he adds. These are commonly called "killer cells" because they serve as your body's primary defense against more serious infections.

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Massage works like an all-natural ibuprofen.

If discomfort from chronic injuries is keeping you sidelined from the gym, hitting up the massage table might mean you'll be sore no more. "Massage reduces physical suffering by decreasing cortisol and increasing serotonin, which is the body's natural painkiller," says Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine. (Discover 6 natural pain relief remedies every active girl should know about.)

Massage pumps up your brain power.

"One study showed that following a 15-minute chair massage, brain waves changed in the direction of heightened alertness," says Field. "In fact, study participants were able to perform math computations twice as fast and with twice the accuracy." So lying on a table in the dark is turning you into a genius? In the name of research, it's worth testing out the theory.

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Massage fights off insomnia.

If you struggle to get a good night's rest, massage can help with that, say Ariel Raovfogel, a licensed massage therapist at NY Haven Spa in New York City. A lack of serotonin has been linked to sleepless nights, and since massage helps spike levels of the snooze-worthy chemical, it can help you doze off. (Need more help getting proper ZZZs? These little changed you make during the day could help you sleep better at night.)

Massage melts away stress and anxiety.

It's not just the smell of calming oils that have you feeling chill—massage is a true muscle (and mood) relaxer. The series of strokes decreases your sympathetic tone, which is a part of the nervous system that prepares your body to react to situations of stress or emergency, says Rapaport. And the subsequent decrease in cortisol and increase in serotonin is a formula for some seriously calm vibes. Some research goes as far to say that massage is so good for your mental game, it may even help with depression.

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Massage increases your range of motion.

Flexibility not really your thing? By treating yourself to a session, you may just be able to pull off that pyramid pose in yoga. Massage loosens up muscles and increases circulation, which helps pump oxygen to joints, says Raovfogel. All are key in keeping your body limber. And if it's inflammation that's limiting your mobility, letting yourself get a good squeeze reduces the presence of cytokines, proteins that lead to inflammation.

Massage helps with headaches.

Focus your session on your neck for some relief from that dreaded pounding-aching-throbbing feeling. "A massage can help reduce headaches by stimulating pressure receptors at the nape of the neck, which helps increase vagal activity," Field says. It's thought that when the vagus nerve is active, it calms cluster headaches and migraines.