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Sing yourself happy and healthy

Sing yourself happy and healthy

We looked at the benefits of singing last week and this week, we’re treating you all to a second look so we can delve a little further into the Gothenburg Study and the link to yoga…

Various health benefits of singing have been well documented, but it's been unclear how they come about. As you may remember if you read our article last week, brand new research into respiratory and heart rate activity during singing indicates that health benefits might derive from some of the same processes as those involved in doing yoga. Time to add a warble or two to your weekly exercise plan!

We know that singing is good for us. That's not exactly news. Past research has found that it boosts the immune system and reduces stress levels. Singing with others creates a sense of community and shared endeavour that improves emotional resilience and mental health. It's been shown that singing helps people to cope with chronic pain and life-limiting conditions, and one study even claims that it increases life expectancy.

This isn't surprising. Singing is an activity that involves the whole body. You need to pay particular attention to your core muscles and your breathing in order to sing well. You need to concentrate and to multi-task, so your brain is getting a workout as well. So it seems obvious that singing is a healthy activity. But until recently, there wasn't any formal evidence relating to the mechanisms whereby singing confers health benefits. This is beginning to change, thanks to a new study from the University of Gothenburg.

The Gothenburg study

The latest wave of media interest in the health benefits of singing has been stirred up by the Swedish study published in the journal Frontiers in Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience. The title is somewhat dry: “Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers.” But the content is fascinating.

Björn Vickhoff and colleagues from the University of Gothenburg theorise that the reason that singing promotes wellbeing is that it fosters slower, more controlled respiration and that this in turn affects heart rate activity. An effect known as respiratory sinus arrhythmia occurs, where heart rate varies in synchrony with breathing. This is known from studies on meditation and yoga to create a beneficial, soothing effect for the whole body. Could it also be the underlying mechanism for the health benefits of singing?

The researchers asked a group of healthy 18 year-olds to perform three choral exercises. They:

  • hummed a single note, breathing when they needed to,
  • sang a hymn without any guidance about breathing, or
  • sang a slow mantra, breathing only between phrases.

They measured heart rate and respiration while participants sang and found that the heart rates of singers synchronised when singing regular song structures in unison. This was true for all three exercises, but the effect was strongest for the mantra. Another, related finding was that singing increased the amount of heart rate variability (i.e. how much your heart rate fluctuates). This may have important implications because low heart rate variability is related to high blood pressure, with all of its health risks. Finally, the researchers also measured other physiological responses (skin conductance and finger temperature) and found that singing caused an overall effect or stress reduction.

Vickhoff and his colleagues conclude that singing might derive its health benefits from similar mechanisms as the breathing exercises used in yoga and other “alternative” forms of exercise and systematic relaxation.

Better than yoga?!

Because of the importance of breathing in singing, it has been speculated that similar mechanisms underlie the health benefits of singing, yoga and meditation. This is an interesting idea in the context of research findings published last week that a twenty-minute session of yoga is better for your brain activity than doing vigorous exercise for the same amount of time.

Some people reviewing the Gothenburg study – not the original researchers, it must be said! - have speculated that these findings indicate that singing is better for you than doing yoga. After all, argued one, belting out a good tune is much more fun than doing a downward dog! Whilst this was clearly a tongue-in-cheek comment, it does raise the interesting question of comparative benefits of different forms of exercise. Fortunately, we won't necessarily have to choose between the health benefits of singing and yoga, if the new American trend for “vocal yoga” catches on here...

Finally: It's fun!

We sing for much more interesting reasons than reducing our blood pressure or improving our respiratory capacity. For many, many people across the country, singing is a profoundly joyful experience that combines the pleasure of music with the pleasure of socialising with others. As such, it's good for us on many levels – physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual – and its benefits are rather more complex and subtle than respiratory sinus arrhytnmia. It's a lovely thought that your heart rate is synchronising with the heart rates of those around you as you're singing.