For those of us who are not members of a choral group or band, Christmas is the time of year when we are most likely to exercise our vocal chords and do some carol-singing, but research studies confirm that we should not wait until the festive season to search out our singing voices and belt out our favourite tunes.
Scientists and researchers claim that singing is a gentle yet beneficial form of aerobic exercise which can also have positive effects on mental health and anxiety.
Professor Graham Welch, who is the Chair of the International Music Education Research Centre at the University of London, has spent over 30 years studying the positive effects of singing, which he says affects us on many different levels due to the fact that body systems such as the nervous, endocrine and immune systems are so closely integrated.
"The physical, mental and emotional – these three things are interwoven," he explained. "Because music is multi-sited in the brain and we’re also involving ourselves in strong aerobic activity and singing is a form of exercise, it means there’s a release of what’s called the pleasure hormone. But when we sing we also see a measurable decrease in stress hormones like cortisol – a direct correlation in the physical endocrine system."
Singing requires us to fill our lungs with air, which increases heart rate and blood circulation, though in a moderate way that makes it a suitable form of exercise for most people, even the infirm.This is why a British charity, Heart Research U.K., has been running a Christmas campaign for the past few years entitled "Sing for your Heart". The charity’s Barbara Dinsdale says that singing is a safe, simple and social activity that everyone can enjoy.
"As it’s an aerobic activity singing improves heart health with related benefits to overall health and is linked to longevity, stress reduction, and general health maintenance, " she said. "Singing also brings a great amount of happiness. It is impossible to sing well with a long face because it affects your pitch. Keeping the positive momentum up is essential. If we smile as we sing then people soon feel the benefit in more ways than one."
Singing teacher Helen Astrid, from the London-based Helen Astrid Singing Academy, has witnessed the positive results herself when her pupils leave her lessons with renewed vitality:
"It lifts us up on a spiritual level, it helps our self-esteem, and it’s great for all ages from toddlers to grannies – you can have a good sing and let your hair down," she said. "It relates to our communal pleasure as well, it increases our sense of satisfaction with ourselves, a greater sense of feeling included."
Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, discovered during a recent study that choristers’ heartbeats synchronised when they sang together, producing a calming effect that was compared to the effects of yoga. The scientists asked a group of teenagers to perform three choral exercises – humming, singing a hymn and chanting – and monitored their heart rhythms during each. They showed that singing has a dramatic effect on heart rate variability, linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
“Song is a form of regular, controlled breathing, since breathing out occurs on the song phrases and inhaling takes place between these,” said the leader of the study, Dr Björn Vickhoff. “It gives you pretty much the same effect as yoga breathing. It helps you relax, and there are indications that it does provide a heart benefit.”
So it seems certain that singing your favourite medley during your morning shower could be setting you up for the day both mentally and physically, but scientists suggest that if you can share that experience with others then the advantages are further multiplied. Researchers have found that group singing has a relaxing yet uplifting effect, calming anxiety yet raising the spirits.
An Australian study published in 2008 revealed that typically, choir members had a greater sense of well-being and satisfaction with life than the average person, even when they were actually dealing with very significant problems. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress responses. An earlier study from 1998 monitored nursing home residents who sang together for one month, and found that the group showed notable decreases in anxiety and depression.
The feelings of elation may arise because singing triggers the release of types of hormones known as endorphins, which cause feelings of pleasure. Other scientific postulations include the release of another hormone, oxytocin, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress and promote feelings of trust and bonding, possibly explaining why singing appears to reduce feelings of depression and loneliness. Most recently, a report by Chris Loersch and Nathan Arbuckle, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in November of this year, suggests that “music evolved as a tool of social living,” and that the pleasure derived from group singing is one of the evolutionary benefits of communal living.
It comes as no surprise that the popularity of group singing is increasing yearly. Figures from Chorus America suggest that 32.5 million adults sing in choirs, up by almost 10 million over the past six years. Astrid believes that health benefits may be increased in choir members as we may be more comfortable to let rip and really exercise our lungs in a group setting.
"It’s about having the opportunity to really let go and hear other voices come at you from left, right and centre," she said, and had this advice for those whose vocal chords have only a once-yearly airing:
"Sing out rather than hold back. Let go and don’t worry about the soprano parts – leave that to the choir."
So, the advice is, for improved physical and mental health, get out and get singing! The health benefits do not seem to rely on the singer having a tuneful voice, and many choirs do not require members to audition, but exist purely to allow groups of people to get together and sing for the sheer joy of it.
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