Can participating in or observing the creative arts provide health benefits? Research here is ongoing but here are some initial findings.

The Creative Arts - ‘How the Arts affect your Health’ was published in 2010 in Am J Public Health. It was reported that, ‘Scientists are finding that the arts can benefit both your mental and physical health. Current research is following a number of paths. Some scientists measure the natural substances your body produces when you’re listening to music or otherwise exposed to the arts. Others look at what happens when you are active in the creative process. Researchers are now investigating how the arts can help us recover from disease, injury and psychological trauma. Many scientists agree that the arts can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve well-being and enhance the way we fight infection.’

In the UK, the Scottish government arranged a literature review  of the evidence base for culture, the arts and sport policy. This identified that several rigorous hospital-based studies involving control groups had shown health benefits arising from participation in arts activities, or being placed in a well-designed environment. These included quicker recovery rates, reduced medication required, fewer visits to the GP, reduced stress, reduced depression and an enhanced sense of well being.

An Arts Council review in England identified similar benefits. For example a review of 385 scientific papers on arts and health (Staricoff) found the outcomes for patients included, ‘reduction of stress, depression and anxiety; clinical outcomes such as reduced blood pressure, reduced pain intensity and reduced need for medication.’

Research has even suggested that regular attendance at cultural events aids longevity. A Swedish study (Bygren et al, 1996) found that even when key variables such as age, gender, income, level of education, smoking, physical exercise and long-term disease were taken into account, attendance at cultural events, reading books or periodicals, making music or singing in a choir appeared to reduce the risks of cancer related mortality among the urban population studied.

Dance - According to the Harvard Commentaries on Health Dance is a great way to lose weight, increase energy and improve your overall fitness - all while having fun. ‘The Commentaries explain the benefits of a number of types of dance, including Ballet, Flamenco, Hip Hop and Ballroom – and comment, ‘Even slower-paced dances help you tone your muscles, build endurance, and improve flexibility and balance.’

Wikipedia advises, ‘Being in general an aerobic exercise, dance brings well known benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, weight control and others commonly associated with physical fitness. In addition, a considerable effect on psychological well-being is noted.’ Wikipedia even finds research evidence to suggest that dance compares favourably with sport and other forms of physical exercise. For example it refers to a report by Professor Tim Watson and Dr Andrew Garrett of the University of Hertfordshire. This compared members of the Royal Ballet with a squad of British national and international swimmers. The dancers scored higher than the swimmers in seven out of ten areas of fitness. Another example cited on Wikipedia was a study by Dr Paul Dougall at Strathclyde University in 2010, which concentrated on older women. This found that Scottish country dancers were more agile, had stronger legs and could walk more briskly than people of the same age who took part in exercises such as swimming, walking, golf and keep-fit classes.

NB For more strenuous and sustained dance Wikipedia reminds readers of the importance of warming up and cooling down, to reduce the risk of injury.

Music and Singing - According to The Guardian singing provides a number of physical benefits. As an aerobic activity it not only improves cardiovascular health but is also, ‘ linked to stress reduction, longevity and better overall health.’ The article goes on to suggest, ‘Improved airflow in the upper respiratory tract is likely to lessen the opportunity for bacteria to flourish there, countering the symptoms of colds and flu. Singing also aids the development of motor control and coordination, and recent studies have shown that it improves neurological functioning.’ It also refers to research published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, which suggested that group singing helped people to cope better with chronic pain.

In the UK the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Christchurch University Canterbury is researching the potential value of music, and other participative arts activities, in the promotion of well-being and health of individuals and communities. Professor Grenville Hancox, director of music at the university and co-director of the centre, says, "We are convinced that it is a powerful tool. Research we've just done involving international choirs and over 12,000 people identified several particular benefits of regular group singing, including specific examples of people who say it helped them recover from strokes or heart attacks."

Medical News Today reports on a number of initiatives being taken within the UK, aiming to apply the potential health benefits of singing. These include Singing for the Brain, East Berkshire Alzheimer's Society; Sing Your Heart Out, Hellesdon Hospital, Norwich; and Singing Medicine, Birmingham Children's Hospital. The potential benefits for Alzheimer’s sufferers are reported, with a practical case study. So too are the potential benefits for those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (quoting a study by researchers at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, published in the International Journal of COPD in April 2009, which concluded that regular singing may improve quality of life and help COPD patients' breathing by preserving their "maximal expiratory pressure"). This correlates with the report that patients with severe lung disease being treated at the Royal Brompton Hospital in London are also benefitting from regular singing practice, with a number enrolled in a clinical trial.

It has even been suggested that singing aids longevity. A joint study conducted by Harvard and Yale indicated that choral singing increased life expectancy among people in New Haven, Connecticut. Their report suggested this was because singing promotes a healthy heart and an enhanced mental state. 

Conclusions - It is widely recognised that further research is needed and that this needs to be more consistently planned and evaluated. However, the research findings available to date suggest a range of health benefits from both participating in and regularly observing the creative arts. 

Reviewed and updated February 2021