The Arts and YOUR Health

By Bari Amadio

With Mayo Clinic in town and DMC beginning to take off, branding Rochester as the healthiest city in America should be a given. But just as elections have consequences, so do words. What exactly does being the healthiest city mean? When we think of “healthy” we most likely think of exercising, proper food intake and emotional and mental balance. So we activate our parks, build and maintain our trails, bring rental bikes to our city center, promote farm to table ingredients and take yoga classes. All admirable, but as the jazz chanteuse Peggy Lee once sang, “Is that all there is?” The answer is a resounding NO.

Where are the Arts?

As a child, did you ever take dance lessons? Dream of writing the Great American Novel while writing in your diary? Set foot on a stage? Let loose your inner Van Gogh by painting the masterpiece your mother proudly placed on the refrigerator? Play a musical instrument or sing in the choir? Are you still pursuing your creative side in adulthood? All of these activities are known today as Arts Engagement, but back in your childhood, I bet you never thought they were also part of your well-being.

Well-being is a component of health and occurs when You develop and fulfill your potential, work productively and creatively, build strong and positive relationships with others, contribute to the community and achieve a sense of purpose in Society. So how then does Arts Engagement (AE) affect Your well-being and health?

AE has a significant positive effect on well-being by encouraging self-understanding, expression, creativity, confidence, self-esteem, interpersonal communication, problem-solving, invention, novel thinking, and innovation. Whew! And this is why it can be said that STEAM is definitely hotter than STEM.

Do you actively participate in the arts or are You more of an attendee? Participation involves creative activities like painting, sociable activities like singing to an audience or physically demanding activities like dancing. It’s the making, creating, writing aspect. Attendance means being present at a performing arts event like a play or a cultural festival, or at a non-performing arts event like a film festival or stopping by the library. So it’s more like listening, visiting, watching. Where do You fit on the spectrum, and what difference does it make?

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) studied the Arts participation vs. Arts attendance question in 2009 and found that Your Arts-related well-being is influenced by the level of Your engagement in an Arts activity. The more active Your participation, the greater benefit to Your feeling of well-being. But not to worry because the NEA Study also found that exposure to any art form, whether You play an active or passive role, is of benefit to Your over-all health.

Since it’s settled that general Arts exposure is definitely a health issue, how do the various disciplines break down as far as their effect on specific health issues? Does it pay to keep taking those dance lessons? Can the Arts help if you’ve had a stroke? And why does music soothe the savage beast? Once again, research has the answers.

Physical inactivity is the 4th leading risk factor for death, so being a couch potato is one step closer to being covered in dirt no matter how much You exercise during the day. Regular physical activity decreases the risk of coronary artery disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, certain cancers and depression. It increases bone density to prevent osteoporosis as you age, and even improves self-esteem and body image, while decreasing anxiety, stress and depression in our youth.


What’s the #1 Arts form activity in the U.S.?  Recreational Dance! There’s a reason that Dancing with the Stars is entering its 23rd season, and the Trust’s “Dancing for the Arts” (DFTA), entering its 6th year, continues to sell out. Dancing is an effective health-promoting activity for all ages with physical, social, psychological and health benefits.

What’s that? You say you’re not fit? No excuse! The lower the fitness to begin with, the greater the results. And all styles of dance report similar findings. You will experience greater flexibility, increased muscular strength, greater fat burning capacity (who doesn’t want that?) and just an overall sense of well-being.

Dance can even help if You have a movement disorder. Patients with Parkinson’s Disease were taught the Argentine Tango and their balance and gait showed significant improvement compared to the control group that did not dance. For anyone who attended DFTA Take IV and watched the intricate Argentine Tango performance by winners April Dahl and Dr. Bassem Elhassan, there is surely an appreciation of what these patients have accomplished.

Someday You might find yourself in an assisted living situation. For older women new to assisted living, participating in a dance movement class offered by these facilities gave them a feeling of being special and belonging. They realized a new and improved self because they were moving better. This led to feeling physically and mentally better and a healthier adaptation to their new living circumstances. 

If You are ever watching Fred Astaire sing “I won’t dance, don’t ask me” to Ginger Rogers, remember that he is recognized as a great dancer, and because of all the years of dancing was able to remain physically active until his death at 88 from pneumonia. So if someone asks you to dance………..


When it comes to Your health and vocal music, research has shown that amateurs (and let’s face it, that’s most of us) involved with choral music develop a sense of mastery as well as experience social and musical belonging. Singing increases the “bonding hormone” that helps us feel a sense of trust. The choral movement is considered one of the most health-promoting institutions, with older adult singers having fewer medical visits, less medication use and fewer falls than those not in a choral group. Group singing also has been found to have an impact on Parkinson’s Disease patients with voice problems. Reports indicate statistical improvement in respiration, phonation, movement of facial muscles and articulation, leading to patients reporting improved communication and improved quality of life.

Perhaps your interests had You pursuing music through playing an instrument, like Steve Books of Booker Mini fame. With aging, You might take slightly longer to understand a sound just heard. It’s the bill vs. pill dilemma. But there’s good news. Musicians brains are quicker to respond to sounds, and understand speech better in background noise than non-musicians. It seems that a lifetime of making music promotes improved hearing in noise, remembering what you hear longer, improved cognitive function and physical health.

Whether You’ve had musical training or not, merely listening to music will strengthen your heart and improve recovery if you have heart disease. Why? The release of endorphins/dopamine from the brain improves vascular health. But research has also discovered the effects of variations in different aspects of music as well:

Heavy metal raises stress levels, and if you’ve listened to heavy metal you might figure that’s a no-brainer. Just as listening to opera, classical or joyful music will stimulate endorphin release. Upbeat, fast tempo music provides better concentration, better focus on daily tasks and builds endurance. A slower tempo slows brain waves, reducing anxiety and stress. Heart rate, blood pressure and pain levels are all lowered. It’s the old “music soothes the savage beast” adage. The bottom line, however, is to choose music that You like so as to reap the maximum benefit.


Walk around Mayo Clinic and you can lose yourself in what is really a world-class art museum. The only thing missing is a museum curator. Visual art has always had the ability to speak to one’s soul. It’s been shown that ambiguous, abstract paintings can provoke anxiety while familiar scenes of people and outdoors are more likely to invoke a serene experience, lowering blood pressure and heart rate. That’s why hospitals take great care in choosing the “right” art for their patients. They have learned that this aids in the recovery of patients leading to shorter hospital stays and decreased pain.

Walk over to the library to see the mural painted by artist Peter Lex on the garage door. It’s a prime example of the health benefits that visual art will bring to You; namely helping You relax, reducing depression and anxiety, encouraging playfulness and a sense of humor, improving cognition and most definitely reducing boredom!

For those experiencing mental illness, dementia and depression, visual art is widely used in treatment because of the creative responses elicited. Seniors especially are found to have significant improvement in motivation and emotion, and social interaction increases in older women. Most importantly for me, visual art is a channel for communication with my mother-in-law who has Alzheimer’s. We will look at pictures hanging in her memory care unit and reminisce about past experiences, albeit the same ones each time I visit her, but it is a window into the woman she once was. Such is the power and health benefit of visual art.


“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players…….and one man in his time plays many parts”. So sayeth Shakespeare. We are all of us actors, at one time or another, and fortunately for us, acting on a stage does not require previous training or even initial interest. However, if You take the plunge and actually take acting lessons, or just get cast in a play, You will benefit from increased cognition, emotional and physical action, the feeling of strong social support (You become a theatre family, just like the cast of The Little Mermaid by Wits' End Theatre), and higher memory scores (the plus side of memorizing your role).


No matter how busy you may think you are, You must find time for reading. Those are not my words, but those of Confucius, who felt the lack of reading led to self-chosen ignorance. It also leads to health implications. Literature decreases stress by allowing for either solitude (ever curl up with a good book?) or social interaction if one joins a Book Club. And the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project showed that poetry stimulated the memory of those with dementia.

Expressive writing is another aspect of literature that can have profound effects on Your health. Writing about traumatic, stressful or emotional events is the first step in healing Your psyche. Gregory Stavrou, Executive Director of the Rochester Civic Theatre Company, started a pilot project with women prisoners at the Olmsted County jail. They wrote poetry and shared their feelings through their writings as to past events in their lives. During this time, violent incidents among the women disappeared. When the project stopped for the year, the violent incidents up ticked. Such was the power of expressive writing. It can also improve the immune system to fight infection, and the Warrior Writers project has shown soldiers can lessen the effects of their post traumatic stress disorder. Positive benefits to You will be greater and last longer if You write about deeper experiences than superficial ones.


We talk about a stroke of genius, stroking one’s face, or stroking a rowing crew to victory. But the sudden death of brain cells is another stroke that can strike at any time. Yet, there is a direct impact in relation to loving the Arts. Stroke patients who love music, theater and art recover better than stroke patients who do not. Art-loving stroke patients are happier, more energetic, less anxious, have better memories and communication skills than non-loving Arts stroke patients. Amazingly, stroke patients may improve faster if they sing rather than speak as part of their rehabilitation. The thought is that lifelong exposure to the Arts may make long term changes to the brain which helps it recover after illness.

So what have You learned about the Arts and Your health? For one thing, the Arts positively impact Your well-being whether as a participant or attendee in any of the Arts forms, although there is greater benefit as a participant. Remember that exposure to any art form, whether You are active or passive, is of benefit to Your over-all health. Participating in creative and performing Arts has beneficial health effects across Your lifespan. The younger You started, the better, but it’s never too late! And the Arts have been shown through many research studies to improve the quality of life for those with chronic health conditions.

What does it all mean for you? 

We have no idea what health issues will be cast our individual way, but we do know that evidence points to the Arts playing a vital role in our over-all well-being, not just as an economic driver or quality of life issue. The Arts absolutely affect our health whether we are currently healthy or will face future challenges. So what are You waiting for? The world of the Arts awaits you in many forms. Advocate for the Arts in Rochester. Become, or remain, an Arts-lover and it might just save the future quality of your life.