Why consuming a little music every day can enhance wellbeing

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The scientific evidence regarding the effects of music on the brain is well documented but mostly confined to the echo chamber of academic journals. As far as the general public is concerned, music is mostly considered and consumed as entertainment. It is ‘entertaining’ of course, but that’s just part of its power. Today music is the most undervalued, under-utilised asset on our planet. It’s been stripped from curriculums (to make way for “more important” subjects), it’s been lost from hospitals in the cost cutting era (remember when every bed had headphones broadcasting hospital radio?), it’s been lost from high streets and town centres as gentrification swept through and displaced music venues and busking pitches (London lost over 30% of its music venues over a recent ten year period).  

 There’s a reason that the brain responds to music in specific neurochemical ways. It played a key role in the evolutionary success of our species. Our ancestors used music to drive social bonding and build communities (safety in numbers). They used rhythms and singing to stay awake around campfires while keeping watch for danger at night. They used rhythm and singing (sounds not words) to share and remember important messages and information before we invented language. We’re the only species on the planet that can synchronize to a beat and sing and dance together perfectly in unison. This unique ability is a special and vital part of being human.

 So it’s no surprise that music has very significant effects on our brain. It activates multiple regions simultaneously and triggers the release of chemicals that influence our mood and decision making behaviour. Music can help decrease stress and anxiety; boost motivation to help us achieve goals such as weight loss and giving up smoking; bring us together socially to combat loneliness; help us sleep better; help us burn calories through dance; boost the development of neural networks in our brain; improve our heart and lung efficiency and musculoskeletal health and much more.

 There are proven benefits that music can deliver. Start adding music into your daily routine. Listen to relaxing and/or motivating playlists during your commute; join a choir; learn an instrument; attend a gig at your local music venue; go to a music festival; go dancing; listen to a sleep playlist at bedtime; head to an exercise to music class. Given the scientific evidence regarding the power of music why on earth aren’t we all doing this already I hear you ask?

 Since the latter half of the 20th century there’s been explosive growth in the fitness industry as it became intertwined with popular culture. The 1970s and 80s cultivated fitness icons such as Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons in the USA; The Green Goddess and Mr Motivator in the UK; exercise classes; health clubs and gyms; personal trainers; fitness fashion. Today the private health club market is worth over £3bn in the UK according to Mintel. The total market value of the UK health and fitness industry is almost £5bn according to year-end figures to March 2018 as compiled by the annual UK State of the Fitness Industry Report. The message regarding the undisputed effect of exercise on good health has well and truly penetrated society. The message regarding the undisputed effect of music on good health has not. But despite the success in communicating the message the health and fitness industry has failed to deliver a healthy nation.

 For the past 6 years the market value of the UK health and fitness industry has achieved growth. Global figures show the same success according to the annual report by The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Worldwide health club industry revenue reached $87.2bn in 2017. The USA leads the field with $30bn of revenues, far ahead of its closest rivals Germany ($5.6bn) and the UK ($5.5bn).

 The world has changed dramatically over the past century, especially for women. People of the 1910s would have been horrified at the sight of scantily lycra-clad men and women sweating while working out in public. It’s become a normal part of our daily lives to see men and women working out, running, cycling, swimming, lifting weights. But obesity levels are continuing to grow too. Several decades since its explosion we’re not reaping the long-term rewards of the high street gym culture and don’t have a healthier society. Despite the revenue growth and expansion -  there are now over 7,000 gyms in the UK - the actual penetration rate remains at just 14.9%. Our populations, especially in the western world, are getting fatter and less healthy. As I sat down to write this chapter, a well-timed announcement from Public Health England (PHE) revealed that 80% of over 40s in the UK are ‘worryingly unhealthy’. Published just a few days after Christmas Day, it was no doubt designed to urge the population to make a renewed effort to get healthy in the New Year. It’s a damning illustration of the failure of the fitness industry to keep the nation fit.

 Local health and fitness establishments rub their hands with glee each January as new recruits knock on their door. It’s a business model that is well established. Step 1 – sign up new members to a monthly subscription in January. Step 2 – even though you don’t see them again after a few months keep taking their money until they get around to cancelling their standing orders. I was heavily involved in this business model myself for almost a decade while managing a chain of health clubs in England throughout the 1990s.

The PHE results have been gathered from PHE’s ‘How Are You’ quiz that has been completed by 1.1 million people so far. It’s an impressive sample size. According to the official findings, 83% of 40 to 60 year olds in the UK (87% of men and 79% of women) are either overweight or obese, exceed the Chief Medical Officer’s (CMO) alcohol guidelines or are physically inactive. This is pretty alarming when you view the current BMI (Body Mass Index) guidelines and see how broad the “Healthy Weight” range is. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (2017) almost 40% of adults and 19% of youths in the USA are obese. In the UK 26% of adults are obese. Modern life seems to be harming the nation but I would add that it may actually be modern attitudes that are predominantly the problem. Many people according to PHE can’t actually identify what a ‘healthy’ body looks like, suggesting obesity has become the new normal. 77% of men and 63% of women in middle age are overweight or obese in the UK. Fashion brands now offer XXXXXXL sizes for men to cater for the fact that the average male waist has been rising in Britain and is currently just under 38 inches. Obesity in adults has hit an all time high. If we can’t reverse this problem we’re all in for a rocky ride ahead. The diabetes rate among this age group has also increased in England. Obese adults in the UK are more than 5 times more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who are a healthy weight, according to PHE. According to the American Diabetes Association this problem is also rampant in the USA where the total cost of diagnosed diabetes was $327 billion in 2017. This relates to $237 billion for direct medical costs and $90 billion in reduced productivity. 60 million people in Europe also live with diabetes and, according to the World Health Organisation, diabetes deaths are likely to double by 2030. In an ageing society health services and the economy will struggle to cope with this issue in the coming decades.

 But here’s the dichotomy: on the same day that these figures make national news headlines in the UK there are more than 5 cookery shows on our main television channels, showing the population how to make dishes that are rather unhealthy. Shows such as The Great British Bake Off have taken the UK by storm and take primetime positions on mainstream terrestrial television. We’ve seen a steady stream of celebrity chefs explode into household names with their own TV shows, book ranges, restaurants and supermarket product ranges over the past two decades. Many of them use recipes that are laden with generous helpings of sugar and calories. The TV stars of previous decades were fitness gurus. The TV stars of today are chefs. These programmes attract significant viewing audiences so they have the potential to make a great health impact if they focus on healthy recipes.

 Why do people find it so hard to get motivated to make the right decisions about health?

The PHE research blames ‘the demands of modern life’ for its alarming health statistic. Seemingly we are so busy with work and families that we no longer have time to use our common sense and ensure we follow a few very simple guidelines to look after our bodies. But, if you are able bodied, it isn’t difficult to use the stairs instead of the lift, or to buy vegetables instead of frozen meals. It’s a choice. It’s just that most of us choose not to do what we know we should be doing. These bad choices are usually not forced on us. So the problem isn’t necessarily linked to the demands of modern life but more likely determined by our lack of willpower and our general inertia. 

 I’ve been a health professional for more than 20 years. In trying to help and encourage people to lose weight and make small but key changes to their lifestyles I’ve learnt that when dealing with humans, achieving these changes on a permanent basis is often easier said than done. I have to also keep reminding myself to stick to these principles in my own life! No-one is immune to these pressures. There’s no doubt that it’s a daily challenge. There has been some discussion regarding whether concepts such as nudge theory can automatically influence behavioural changes for healthier lifestyles. For example, putting healthy snacks at supermarket tills instead of sugary ones. These can certainly help make changes at the micro decision making level. But achieving or influencing significant behavioural changes on a larger scale is a complex challenge. In 2011 the British Medical Journalpublished an article examining whether ‘nudges’ are an effective public health strategy to tackle obesity. The conclusion was that the nudge approach “will be no substitute for regulation of the food and drinks industry, but it may nonetheless serve the social good”. Simple incentives have not to date proved effective in motivating sustained weight loss. Governments are going to need to get tough. In 2018 some taxation measures on sugary drinks were introduced in the UK to try and implement these changes. ‘Sin taxes’ previously only linked to alcohol and cigarettes have in recent years been introduced in several countries to stem the consumption of unhealthy food. This is a government move that is likely to continue in order to stop people consuming so much unhealthy food and drink.

 Getting people to move more often is the other side of the problem. Sport England data shows that encouraging participation is still a problem. In 2016 just 7.8 million people in the UK were doing 30 minutes of moderate exercise 3 times a week. With health experts now urging 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week, we are still a long way off target. This data doesn’t include recreational walking or cycling so our nation of dog lovers probably aren’t included here. (My twice daily dog walks help me clock up approximately 10,000 steps a day). With inactivity and prolonged periods of sitting down now recognized as a greater threat than smoking encouraging participation amongst the general public is critical. The links between sedentary lifestyles and diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and even certain cancers have been proven. We need to get people up and out of their chairs as often as possible every day. Perhaps the greatest opportunity in the history of health and fitness is the advances in technology that are now becoming part of our everyday lives. 85% of the UK population aged 16-75 years old now owns or has access to a smartphone. Apps can measure daily movement to help motivate users by giving reminders when they haven’t moved for a while. I haven’t yet found any data to determine whether they succeed in driving long-term behaviour changes. 

 Our unhealthy population hasn’t emerged because the guidelines promoted by fitness gurus in past decades were wrong. It’s because the nation didn’t follow them. They ignored the advice and didn’t adopt the lifestyle long-term. They fell off the wagon. Most fail despite their good intentions. This is even more difficult if your network of family, colleagues and friends don’t also adopt the same healthy behaviour. Music has certainly helped the fitness industry grow due to the continuing popularity of various exercise to music classes and trends. More recently technology has enabled our music choice to become much more personalised during workouts. Individuals now plug into their own music choices via their earphones. We’re able to access almost any song ever recorded thanks to our smartphones, fast download speeds, affordable mobile data bundles and streaming music services such as Spotify. But we can be extracting much more value from music.

 So why have all of these health and fitness trends over previous decades failed to win over the general population and deliver a healthy nation? It’s because humans are often not very good at motivating themselves. Also ultimately most people feel that exercise is something extra they know they “should” fit into already hectic routines. Rather than something they flock to. This is where a broader use of music has a huge role to play because it’s an undisputedly effective motivational tool and at the same time enjoyably entertaining. The scientific body of research confirming that fact is vast and I explore it in depth in my book The Music Diet. Music can help drive affordable interventions that deliver results. I’ve been using it with myself and my clients for decades. It works for all ages, all backgrounds  and all income levels. We need to try new approaches to health and I believe music is the key to this. If you consume a little music everyday you will benefit from automatic health impacts. Listening to music, singing, dancing, going to gigs with friends, learning instruments, performing music, exercising to music – it all has a proven positive effects on the brain and body. So put yourself on The Music Diet today. It’s an all you can eat buffet.


 by Dr Julia Jones aka ‘Dr Dock’ 



HEADER IMAGE: Folkestone’s “Hendrix Party” by Mark Hourahane

Dr Julia Jones (Dr Rock)

Author / CEO, The Music Diet & Found in Music

I read my first music neuroscience article in 1992 while studying psychology. Since then I've continued to use these principles and techniques to help clients harness the power of music in life and business. Over the past 25 years I've worked with elite athletes, celebrities, cities, governments and leading organisations in the private and public sectors. I published my first book The Music Diet in 2019 to bring 40+ years of music and wellbeing research together into one simple read. The Music Diet workplace wellbeing programme will be launched in October 2019 and Music At Work Week will promote the benefits of music in the workplace (Nov 25 to Dec 1).
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