All together now: singing is good for body and soul

Sarah Rainey

SCIENTISTS have shown that not only does singing in a choir make you feel good, it’s got health benefits too. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, found that choristers’ heartbeats synchronised when they sang together, bringing about a calming effect as beneficial to our health as 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 had a dramatic effect on heart rate variability, which was 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,” Dr Björn Vickhoff, who led the study, said. “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.”

Having done both yoga and singing, I’m inclined to agree. Panting one’s way through a downward dog just isn’t as soothing as a floaty aria; nor does contorting oneself into the shape of a cobra make you feel quite as good as a burst of Aretha Franklin. Yoga may supposedly be relaxing, but it is also sweaty, tiring and often painful.

Singing, on the other hand, never fails to leave me feeling fabulous. But is it really better for your heart?

Over the years, scientists have found that crooning has a number of health benefits. The Gothenburg researchers proved that with singing we can train our lungs to breathe better; similarly, a study at Cardiff University last year found that lung cancer patients who sang in a choir had a greater expiratory capacity than those who didn’t.

Singing has also been shown to boost our immune system, reduce stress levels and, according to a report published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004, help patients cope with chronic pain.

A joint study by Harvard and Yale Universities in 2008 went one step further, claiming that choral singing in a Connecticut town had increased residents’ life expectancy.

“Singing delivers a host of physical and emotional benefits, including increased aerobic exercise, improved breathing, posture, mindset, confidence and self-esteem,” Jeremy Hywel Williams, who leads the Llanelli Choral Society in Wales, said.

“While singing alone is good, singing with others can be even better.”

It explains why Brits are flocking to choirs in the thousands – and in South Africa there are choirs galore.

There are more than 3000 groups listed on the British Choirs on the Net website, and the body that runs my choir, Rock Choir, has more than 16000 members in 250 communities nationwide. There are said to be more choirs across Britain now than there are fish and chip shops.

Gareth Malone, the preppy choirmaster credited with reigniting British interest in choral singing through his BBC Two series The Choir, helped a new generation of singers realise the benefits of making music; his Military Wives Choir had a No1 hit in December 2011.

Tom George, a Rock Choir leader in Surrey, said singing took his members’ minds off physical and mental illnesses.

“We receive many e-mails from members telling us how Rock Choir has helped them,” he said.

“People recovering from depression, arthritis, surgery, dealing with the effects of cancer and many other ailments find it a real tonic and have even suggested it should be prescribed on the National Health Service.”

Those living in Los Angeles don’t have to choose between the two: vocal yoga is the latest trend in the US, combining the health benefits of both in a single class. The science doesn’t lie: singing really is better for your health than yoga. And, in the words of Ella Fitzgerald, “the only thing better than singing — is more singing”. – The Daily Telegraph

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