When it comes to pampering, a soothing massage ranks high on most everyone’s list. There’s something wonderful about settling in and relaxing (deep breath in and aaahh-ut) while a trained therapist works out all of your kinks. Yet far too often, we associate this healing ritual as an indulgent spa treatment. Sure, a cozy robe, sweet oil scents, and an hour spent soaking and steaming before and/or after a treatment may add to an extravagant experience; not to mention, there’s nothing like a set of expert hands digging in to your most resistant-to-release knots. But massage therapy can be just as good for you (and potentially even more therapeutic if it happens regularly) when you do it at home on your own.
“People often don’t realize how easy it is to give themselves a massage—or how beneficial it can be,” says psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the University of Miami Touch Research Institute who has researched the benefits of massage for years. “Of course, there are countless benefits you’ll experience when a trained massage therapist works on you, but there’s also plenty you can do on your own that will provide major benefits.”
While scientists have shown that massage can ease stress, depression, and anxiety, new research has uncovered more surprising benefits: In one recent study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers found that massage therapy helps lower blood pressure, and the results last for up to 72 hours post-massage. Other research found massage can prevent migraines and PMS and even help manage the side effects of cancer treatments.
Recently, more researchers have applauded self-massage, in particular, with a new study published in the International Journal of Therapeutic Massage Bodywork finding that it significantly improves the outcome of those with osteoarthritis of the knee. Field adds that much of the research she has conducted at the University of Miami Touch Research Institute over the last four decades has included a control group who performs self-massage in addition to receiving professional massage. Not surprisingly, those groups tend to have more pain relief than the ones who don’t do self-massage in addition to their professional massage therapy sessions.
“Massage is an external stimulation that sets off a complex cascade of internal activity,” says Field. “When our external pressure receptors are stimulated, it very quickly puts us in a parasympathetic state, lowering heart rate, blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol.” Hence the instant relaxation most of us feel mere minutes into a massage. Even better, this stimulation boosts the body’s production of serotonin—our own internal pain-relief or feel-good “juice.” It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the opposite of all of this happens when the pressure used during massage isn’t hard enough. “Light touch or a gentle tickle can actually increase cortisol, raise your blood pressure and heart rate and prompt the wrong kind of cascade of internal reactions,” says Field, “which means moderate pressure is key.”
Self-massage tools can help you achieve that crucial moderate pressure for longer periods of time than you’d be able for with your hands alone, says Field. And you don’t need to spend a bundle on these tools at a specialty store. In fact, one of the things Field and her team of researchers found most effective for self-massage at home is a kitchen broom handle. “The diameter is just right for rubbing legs and hips and is proof that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to keep yourself in good shape,” she says.
Read on for the tools and techniques you need to start incorporating effective massage into your daily self-care routine. The best part? There’s a good chance you already own one or more of these muscle-soothing saviors.
Holding a broom handle about shoulder-width apart and then rolling it along your leg muscles can help give you leverage that’ll allow you to dig in to your muscles a bit deeper than you’d be able to with your hands alone.
The how-to: Roll the handle over your leg muscles (quads, hamstrings and IT bands) and start to identify trigger points and sore spots. Similar to the way you’d hold pressure if you were using a foam roller, focus on those “hot spots” by gently rubbing and kneading. Quick tip: Be sure the broom handle is smooth and if it’s made of wood, that it’s new and doesn’t have any splinters that’ll make it uncomfortable or potentially harmful.
2. Rolling pin or paint roller
Similar to a broom handle but even easier to use (which makes this especially great for older folks), a simple kitchen rolling pin can be a wonderful way to “roll” out sore quads and IT bands. You might even use this to gently roll out your abdomen, says Erik Krozen, D.C., a chiropractic physician in Modena, Illinois. And if a rolling pin provides too much pressure, swap it for a paint roller, he says, which can be a bit more gentle and easier to maneuver because it only requires one hand.
The how-to: Holding the rolling pin handles, gently apply pressure as you roll up and down each leg, focusing on areas that feel particularly tight or sore. Depending on your flexibility, you might even be able to hold it behind you and give your lower back and glutes a massage.
3. Lacrosse ball
For Kyra Williams, a certified personal trainer and powerlifting coach, lacrosse balls are a crucial part of her at-home fitness and feel-good routine. “They’re great because they are small enough to really work out knots in the most common spots where we hold tension, and they’re just hard enough to help you apply the right pressure,” says Williams. “Tennis balls are a bit too soft.”
The how-to: Think of these like a much smaller version of a foam roller, says Williams: “Place one on the floor and roll out your back, shoulders, traps and even your bum,” she says. “Or, place the lacrosse ball on a wall and lean into it with your shoulders, chest, and back, applying just enough pressure until you feel it working out your muscle tightness and knots.” If you suffer from chronic back pain, tape two lacrosse balls together so they look like a peanut in its shell and use to roll up and down your spine, either laying on the balls on the floor or using them against a wall.
4. Frozen water bottle
If you deal with foot pain regularly or spend a lot of time standing for work, there’s a good chance all of those little muscles in the bottom of your feet are strained.
The how-to: Simply place the frozen water bottle on the floor and roll back and forth under your whole foot, paying special attention to super-sore areas as well as your heels, says Williams. Uncomfortably cold? Slip on a pair of warm socks and keep rolling. Williams suggests rolling each foot for five to 15 minutes at least once a day, and possibly more frequently if you’re a runner or have been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis.
5. PVC pipes
When Williams travels for running races, she stuffs her clothes into a two-foot long PVC pipe and packs it in her suitcase so she can “roll” out her muscles the night before her race. “It does the same thing as a foam roller but the material is even harder, which means you get a deeper massage,” she says. This can feel particularly great on large muscle groups, such as hamstrings, which can be tougher to release than smaller, more easily accessible muscles, says Williams.
The how-to: Place the PVC pipe on the floor and lean your body weight into it, bracing yourself with your hands or legs so that you can easily control the pressure. Then, roll up and down your muscles along the back and front of your body, focusing on particularly tight spots.
6. Car buffer
This may sound ridiculous, but rather than go to a store to buy a specialty massage wand, Williams says her car buffer works just as well—for a fraction of the price. “It really sends some deep vibrations into your muscles and the best part is that it’s a small, handheld device so you have complete control over where you want those vibrations to go,” she says.
The how-to: Holding the buffer and starting with the slowest setting, apply just a little bit of pressure to your chest, quads, hips, IT band, calves and any other tight spot that you can reach, suggests Williams.