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The Importance of Exercise

While taking the Essentials of Performing Arts Medicine online course through PAMA this summer, one of the things that really caught my attention was how many different presenters talked about the importance of physical exercise for musicians of all types. My own movement practice has included running and strength training for years and it is absolutely essential to my mental health, but before now I haven’t heard so many presenters talk about how important cardiovascular exercise and resistance training are to musicians and dancers of all kinds.

What we do as flutists is muscular work and requires both strength and coordination.  Musicians are often referred to as “small muscles athletes.”  In comparison to professional basketball or tennis players, musicians are typically doing much more fine motor control type of activities. Music making is a whole body activity, but we often focus only our faces and hands since that is what we’re generally taught during our music training.

Here are some interesting points from the PAMA course about cardio exercise from Dr. Patrick Gannon, PhD, a clinical and performance psychologist based in California.

~ The recommendation is for 30-45 minutes of cardio exercise, 3 -5 times per week

~ This type of exercise discharges physical activation and anxiety quickly and is one of the best natural treatment for state and trait anxiety.

~ It improves mood, lowers anxiety, and increases stress resistance. 

~ Musicians can learn to use it to self-regulate activation levels prior to practice and performance

~ Cardiovascular fitness and resistance/weight training (specific to instrument) are essential for injury prevention.

In different segment of the course specific to dealing with the stress of a global pandemic, Dr. Gannon recommended using cardio exercise, especially in the morning, to treat anxiety and improve your mood in as little as 20 minutes. The effects are so powerful that the world of sport psychology considers “cardio exercise” as medicine.

Other presenters talked about the importance of strength training as part of rehabilitation after injury, especially building strength and coordination with core musculature. Other presenters talked about exercise as an important part of organizing our bodies for optimal performance and practice routines.

What is the best type of exercise for flutists?

The best kind is the type of exercise that you like doing and will do on a regular basis.  If you hate swimming, then swimming laps might not be your best choice!  Walking, running, biking, yoga, swimming – there are many choices.  In many parts of the world, gyms are still closed but there are lots of choices for online strength training programs that don’t require you to have a lot of equipment. Many people are fortunate enough to live in places where they can go outside to walk, run or bike.  Seek out professional instruction and advice before starting a program.  There are many fitness professionals who have taken their coaching and classes online with a great deal of success.

I started an online strength program after quarantine went into effect here in Ohio. I had been following this particular program for a while, but was not officially enrolled.  I’ve been working daily on this program and was shocked and humbled to find out that I had a great deal of work to do with core control.  Despite knowing the importance of these muscles and teaching that to students, I didn’t have the control that I thought I had. I am in a much stronger place now than I have ever been. It turns out that there were indeed muscular things contributing to disc herniations I have had, and the fact that flutists rotate to their left all the time to put the instrument in playing position.

I keep coming back to Dr. Gannon’s statement that cardio exercise is the best natural way to to deal with anxiety and the fact that there is tremendous anxiety about so many things in the world right now. I think Hippocrates was on to something when he said “If you are in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you are still in a bad mood, go for another walk.” My college musician students generally fall into three categories: those who have a dedicated running and/or strength training practice, those with consistent yoga practice and those that do not exercise at all.  In our roles as educators, I think we need to lead by example and teach our students that exercise habits are important for longevity in the music business. The exercise piece impacts overall health and mental wellbeing, both of which are hugely impactful upon our ability to show up and deliver authentic, moving performances. We owe it to ourselves as performing artists to take responsibility for our actions and do the physical work necessary to allow us to function optimally.  We owe it to our students to teach them to do the same.

  1. […] The Flute Examiner (Kelly Wilson): The Importance of Exercise […]

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