The Pleasure-and the Power-Of Human Touch

The Pleasure – and the Power – of Human Touch
by Susan Kleinman, LamasBeauty Correspondent

You don’t have to be a scientist to know that being touched – by the right person, at the right time, in the right way – feels awfully good.

What scientists do know that you may not, is that human touch can actually improve your mental and physical health, lengthen your life, and even boost your career performance.
At the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami – and in labs and real-life experiments around the world – mounting evidence shows that all of us can benefit from increasing the amount of physical contact we have with friends, lovers, and family – and with professional massage therapists. Here’s why:

More Touch Equals Less Stress

A number of studies have confirmed that being massaged, stroked or just held can lower stress levels dramatically. Working in conjunction with Duke University, researchers at the Touch Research Institute have found that after massage therapy, the human body secretes lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol, norepinephrine, and dopamine. These hormones not only make you feel anxious, which can be unpleasant, they can actually cause stress-related diseases – especially heart attack. Reducing their presence through massage, conversely, lowers stress hormones’ ill effects.

Stroking Makes You Smarter

In a 1996 study published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, massaged subjects completed math problems in significantly less time – and with a whole lot fewer errors – than test subjects who were not massaged. Even if your math quiz days are far behind you, the brain-boosting benefits of massage can be a boon.

A Body-Rub Can Beef Up Your Bottom Line

That same study showed that massage recipients showed a profound decrease in job anxiety. And the less time you spend fretting in the office the more work you’ll get done. Touching others (appropriately!) can be good for your career, as well: University studies of waitresses proved conclusively that those who touched their customers casually on the wrist or shoulder received much bigger tips than those who kept their hands to themselves. Of course, one needs to be careful in this era of sexual harassment suits – but offering a warm handshake at the start and finish of every meeting, even with your boss (or perhaps especially with your boss!) can reap real rewards.

Imagine: Immunity

In studies sponsored by the National Institute of Health, medical and nursing students who underwent massage therapy demonstrated an increased immune response in the week before their exams compared to those who did not have treatment. In other words, a massage (or hug) a day can help keep the doctor away.

Massage is Good for Marriage

Preliminary findings of a current study at the Touch Research Institute show that couples who massage each other have lower levels of sexual performance anxiety, and report increased physical intimacy. That’s not news to New York-based sex therapist Mildred Witkin, who has long recommended that couples who are anxious about or dissatisfied with their sex lives soap each other up in the shower, and practice touching in a way that is not explicitly sexual to keep intimacy and playfulness alive.

A Touch Gained Means Less Pain

Of course, massage can be helpful in easing muscle spasms and cramps. But did you know that touch can also lessen pain not directly reached by the masseuse’s prodding hands? Among the types of aches found to be lessened by massage are PMS and labor pains, arthritis, chronic migraines.

Massage Can Heal Other Hurts, Too

While logic might dictate that victims of rape or sexual abuse would be stressed-out by touch therapy, Touch Research Institute studies are actually showing that massage can help women who have experienced these traumas. Professional touch is also helpful in treating several psychological conditions, including anorexia and bulimia.

‘Tis (Sometimes) Better to Give Than to Receive

Before you try to convince that special someone that your health and sanity depend on his massaging you day and night, note that at least one study has shown that giving a massage can sometimes be even more beneficial than receiving one. The experiment assessed the stress levels and self-esteem of senior citizens who received professional massages and of those who massaged infants. Surprise: The massagers showed even greater gains than the massage-ees. That may be partly due to seniors’ particularly pronounced need to feel needed – but then again, (as your honey is sure to remind you when it’s your turn to give a back-rub for a change) we all need to feel valued and appreciated by those we love.


If you would like to see what health benefits you might derive from bodywork but don’t know a massage therapist, ask your physician or friends to recommend one who’s licensed to practice in your state. Or, contact the American Massage Therapy Association at (847) 864-0123, or by e-mail: You can also call your insurance carrier; some health plans now provide reduced rates for certain massage therapy, and have approved lists of providers.


You’d have a massage every day, if you could afford it. But you can’t. And you’d love to spend the night conducting your own scientific research on the power of hugs, but your date-book’s as bare as the racks at Bloomingdales after a blowout sale.

Fortunately, there are other ways to increase the amount of health-boosting touch you receive each week:

Brush Up: A bath brush or body brush is a wonderful way to stimulate your skin. Loofahs or brushes can help exfoliate, and provide many of the benefits of a rubdown of massage.

Moisturize head-to-toe: Using lotion of every square inch of your body guarantees all that skin will be touched and rubbed. For an added calming effect, use an aromatherapy lotion scented with lavender; for increased alertness, try rosemary-scented oil.

Say Yes To Yoga: This popular fitness trend offers many of the benefits of touch because the poses involve rubbing limb against limb. Some Iyengar yoga classes also include partnered stretches – a good way to meet your RDA of touching, too.

Take Two To Tango: Dance classes are a great way to meet new people; learn a new, calorie-burning skill – and have your hand and waist held all evening long. Contact your local YMCA or dance studio for schedules.