How many times have you heard that you need to exercise to improve your mental health? It can feel unhelpful when people say this because depending on your work, where you live, your existing physical abilities, or simply your enjoyment of exercise–the benefits of exercise might feel out of reach.
We all know exercise can help if you’re able to do it regularly and incorporate it into your routine. So what if you can’t or don’t want to?
Turns out that music may be another option for improving your quality of life (mental and physical). How is that possible? And how can you use information from recent research to improve your life through music–instead of or in addition to exercise?
There seems to be an association between listening to music and the way we perceive our quality of life. An analysis of over 20 studies shows that when people listen to music regularly, they tend to feel better about:
What’s really interesting about these findings? Listening to music and exercising regularly show a similar level of benefit to quality of life.
So if you have trouble exercising or just want to help your health in a more fun and enjoyable way, regularly enjoying music may have a similar impact on your quality of life.
Archeology has demonstrated that human beings have been using musical instruments for at least 60,000 years. Aside from that, between bird songs and humans’ natural ability to sing, we have been chanting, dancing, calming, and healing ourselves with sound for what seems the duration of our existence.
Music has several benefits for the body, from activating the vagus nerve to calm the sympathetic nervous system, to creating healing vibrations, to triggering positive memories–all moving us further from our stress responses (e.g. the four F’s: fight, flight, freeze, fawn).
“What started as a sound wave can ultimately evoke an emotional response through the conversion of mechanical energy to chemical and electrical signals (Capella et al., 2013)” – Absenger Cancer Education Foundation
Similarly, in therapeutic settings, individuals suffering with sensory issues have found benefit from the Safe and Sound Protocol, otherwise known as SSP, which causes long-term nervous system regulation through the parasympathetic nervous system–just by listening to low frequency sounds.
Additionally, learning to sing or play an instrument, by way of music therapy or otherwise, has been used to foster passion, routine, and positive reward in patients and feelings of pride and self-esteem.
While the healing benefits of music are accessible through many avenues, music also creates a ripple effect by stimulating us to move. Music often leads us automatically to movement, as one’s body naturally responds to sound via dance or stimming.
In addition to the benefits of both music and the movement it can spur, the whole experience just feels good.
While exercise has many health benefits, as noted, not all people have the capacity to exercise. Physical and emotional struggles can make exercise feel like a herculean effort. Additionally, the term “exercise” alone can feel weighted with connection to self-worth and toxic diet culture.
And while replacing the the term “exercise” with “movement” might help reconnect some to the feel-good benefits of moving their body, it is most important to remember that not everyone receives equal dopamine from exercise. Sometimes mental health struggles like executive dysfunction keep people from exercising. Sometimes fear of injury is involved in avoiding exercise. And sometimes there truly isn’t time in the day to move.
This is where the healing power of music can help. Music is accessible for people with disabilities who struggle to develop a movement routine, for those who lack the space or means to engage in movement, or for those who simply do not feel better from movement in the way others do.
In the studies reviewed and mentioned above, people saw benefits from professional music therapy, but also from just listening to music, singing, or even hearing music in a church environment.
If you already know music that you connect with, you can start by adding in music to your workday, commute, or to chores.
Try to find songs that specifically make you feel good and add those to a playlist for your lower mood days.
You can listen to an album start to finish while you perform another calming task or rest.
Listen to music in the bath or shower and sing to yourself, stimulating your vagus nerve.
Music can help you connect with art and your emotions and help you regulate your feelings.
Play a healing chant to distract yourself from pain, or chant along with it.
Combine music with drawing or coloring to help ground yourself in the present moment.
Connect with others who love a similar album or artist online, creating a sense of community.
Learn to play a musical instrument, or play an instrument you already know.
Attend a sound bath, or listen online.
You can learn to sing using an app like Yousician (which also teaches guitar and piano!).
Add music to your daily commute and sing at the top of your lungs as a form of release.
Create a shared playlist for dinnertime with your family.
Find songs that motivate you or inspire you.
Explore music that connects you to your culture or ethnic background.
Make a calming playlist to play while you get ready for bed and wind down.
If you don’t already listen to music, or listen to a limited variety, it can be enjoyable to ask friends their favorite songs, or pick a specific mood. Services like Pandora do a great job of making playlists based on specific songs, whereas Spotify is great for listening to artists’ entire albums or making playlists on your own.
Or, avoid commercial music entirely. Try singing on your own, a capella. Vocalize favorite tunes from your past, from church, or hum something random.
Given the only things you need to reap music’s benefits are speakers, an instrument, or just your own voice, you can bring the benefits of music with you, to quickly improve your mood anywhere you go.
With progress in science helping us confirm what many already knew, those of us who struggle to exercise can safely and confidently trust that the music we listen to is, in fact, helping! Healthy movement isn’t always an option, but your trusted playlist often is.
By widening our toolkits of accessible and feel-good solutions, we can successfully meet our physical and emotional needs regardless of ability or setting. Taking care of ourselves shouldn’t require sacrificing the many other responsibilities and needs in our busy lives. So if you struggle to fit exercise into your routine, know that music is more than a “half-assed” alternative.
Put your favorite record on, cue your playlist, and listen your way into a happier mood!