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Sing, Dance, Laugh

Wellness benefits abound in unexpected activities

by The Staff on August 17, 2011

Photo by Leif Zurmuhlen

After “years of being on a rollercoaster of being depressed and miserable,” Marty Willey made a change that worked. “I just felt so good, I wondered where that other person went.”

Willey had started singing. “I sang as a young person and then did not sing for years,” says the computer programmer, jewelry designer and mother of two. But in 1999 Willey joined Capitaland Chorus, a local chapter of the worldwide women’s choral organization, Sweet Adelines International.

The impact on Willey’s wellbeing was so profound that she wanted to know why. “There is scientific evidence to support the changes in your chemistry that occur when you sing,” says Willey. “You produce endorphins, you produce more immunoglobulin. And singing in a group is even more beneficial than singing alone. When you sing in a group, you actually produce oxytocin, which is the chemical nursing mothers produce and what you produce when you’re making love. This is the chemistry of singing.”

The empirical evidence is plentiful. Studies have shown singing, especially choral singing, increases aerobic capacity and circulation, improves posture, boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, even blocks pain receptors. Choral singing has also been linked to improved focus, better grades and increased energy and productivity.

Willey became so inspired by the benefits of singing, she developed a workshop called Sing Away Your Stress, an interactive 90-minute program that leads participants through breathing and movement and vocal exercises, interwoven with information about the wellness benefits of music. “By the end of the program we’ve had 80 people singing in four-part harmony,” says Willey.

Willey is still an active member and passionate recruiter for Capitaland Chorus. “We’re starting a Holiday Harmonies program on Oct. 6,” she says, The program invites women to learn holiday music with Capitaland Chorus for six weeks, and then perform for friends and family and in a lunchtime program at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Willey, who advocates that, “singing is beneficial to people socially, physically, chemically and intellectually, it can have an incredible impact on your psychological and your mental health.”

Arleen Stein was a planner for the New York State Health Department, when she discovered her life-changing wellness tool in a lunch workshop of her own.

“I went to a lunch-and-learn program on humor,” says Stein. “But the woman did not tell any jokes. She actually gave me permission to laugh. It was very contagious and I found that it lasted. There was a residual effect over the next week or so.”

Stein was inspired to become a certified laughter leader, and after a few years juggling her work schedule and training and, she admits, “working up the nerve,” she held her first Laughter Factor workshop in Albany. “I absolutely fell in love with it,” says Stein. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done, for myself, and obviously for others.  She has since held programs for emergency volunteers, businessmen, cancer and dementia patients, assisted living communities and more.

Stein’s Laughter Factor workshops incorporate discussions about the benefits and nuances of laughter, physical and vocal warm-ups, laughter exercises for use both inside and out of class, “and then we get silly,” says Stein with a giggle.

“These are tools,” says Stein. “Maybe I am teaching in a way, but I’m really giving people permission to bring their child out and enjoy every day.”

Research into the wellness benefits of laughter has increased recently, and the evidence is impressive: Laughing increases oxygen in the bloodstream, activates the diaphram and prevents the activation of the stress arousal system. Like singing, it releases endorphins, increases immunoglobulin, decreases blood pressure and more.

“I once had a woman in an assisted living community said she hadn’t been feeling well all week and her husband had dragged her to the class. She said she completely forgot she wasn’t feeling well. You sort of lose the world when you’re laughing,” says Stein.

The classes at eba Center for Dance and Fitness, says CEO and artistic director Maude Baum, emphasize the benefits of dance and movement for wellness. “Class participants say the workout is as good or better than any place they’ve been, but there’s a different feeling about being here, and that has to do with a sense of fulfillment in expressing yourself and trying something new,” says Baum. “It’s a very healthy, open and enjoyable atmosphere. There’s no competition, there’s no dress code.”

Research has shown dance to be at least as effective as sports-based exercise for building strength, increasing flexibility and cardiovascular capacity, weight loss, agility, cognition and psychological wellbeing.

“There are two things that are really important about dance that make it different than going to a gym,” says Baum. “One is that there is an expressive quality about it. When you’re dancing, even if you’re a rank beginner, there is a sense of finguring out who you are, and that obviously has a great deal to do with your wellness and your health. . . . Two, when you’re dancing, your brain is working. You’re using more calories; you’re developing more brain synapses, which means you’re making your brain stronger as well as your body. There is a mind-body connection that happens when you’re dancing that just doesn’t happen when you’re on a treadmill.”

Classes are offered in age tiers—teens and adults, ages 40-50 and seniors—and are available for all abilities and experience levels, but eba puts an emphasis on exploring the new, with an array of adult beginner classes.

“All of the classes the teachers understand and believe in the philosophy that all of our students should walk out the door feeling better than when they walked in,” says Baum. “I think that’s what wellness and health is really about.”

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For more information on Capitaland Chorus or Sing Away Your Stress workshops email Marty Willey at martylwilley@gmail.com;for more information on Laughter Factor or eba dance, visit laughterfactor.com and eba-arts.org, respectively.