As performers, we're always trying to stay healthy. We've all experienced the onset of paranoia the moment we discover that there are germs in the vicinity, and the red-alert mode in which we find ourselves as we try (hopefully successfully) to avoid the latest plague.
It's easy to see how important it is to take care of your body when the threat of illness is imminent. However, what about when you're feeling well, everyone around you is healthy, and everything is hunky-dory? Are you still taking care of your body then?
Because, you see, taking care of your body means much more than avoiding sickness. It means feeding it healthy foods, getting adequate sleep, and exercising regularly.
It is on this third component that I want to focus today: regular exercise, and why it's so important for us as performers.
Maybe you're thinking: Exercise, yuck! Exercise is for jocks. Why would a musician/actor possibly need to exercise? Besides, I'm fine with the way I look and feel, why do I need to exercise?
Trust me when I say that, once upon a time, I could relate to this way of thinking. I have never been athletic. I didn't play sports in high school. I was a nerdy musician, after all. I never exercised routinely or intentionally in college, or in my early twenties after I graduated.
Fast forward an entire decade later: I'm still not athletic. You don't want to see me so much as throw a frisbee (trust me, it's really sad). HOWEVER, just because I'm not athletic doesn't mean I'm not fit. You can be fit without being good at sports, and I'm living proof of it.
The story of my health & fitness journey is for another time and place, but the short version is that in my mid-twenties, I discovered a workout that I actually enjoyed, AND that produced positive results in how I looked and felt. Since then, I've developed a healthy and varied weekly exercise routine that I enjoy, that challenges me to meet new goals for myself, and that has helped me tremendously as a singer.
The good news is that anyone can do this. There are so many varieties of workouts out there these days that there is literally something for everyone. If you have no idea where to start, stay tuned for my next post, in which I will offer some ideas.
So why is it so important for performers to be fit?
First of all, before we are performers, we are human beings, and humans require a certain amount of physical activity in order to stay healthy. Our bodies are made to move. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 60 minutes of (preferably aerobic) activity per day for children ages 5-17. This can be achieved through sports, free play, chores, transportation (like walking or biking), and/or planned exercise. For adults, they recommend 150 minutes of light-to-moderate activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week (or some combination of both), along with strength training at least two days a week.
There's good reason that we're expected to be so active. Regular physical activity is good for your heart and lungs, and strengthens the muscles in your body (particularly those in your core and back) that are responsible for good posture and basic day-to-day movement. If your muscles are strong, there is less of chance of them becoming chronically fatigued by everyday movement, and a greater chance that you will retain good, pain-free mobility even into old age.
Yada yada, you say. I've heard all this before. You sound like my parents/teachers/gym coach/etc. (Well if that is the case, then good. It means you have responsible adults looking out for your well-being.) If these reasons somehow aren't enough motivation for you, however, consider how being fit can have a positive impact on you as a performer.
As singers, actors, and dancers, our bodies are our instruments. They are the vehicle through which we create our art. Trying to sing, act, or dance with a sick, malfunctioning, or weak body is akin to trying to perform with a splintered clarinet reed or a broken violin string. You can try your best to make the most of it (and there may be times when you must), but there is no way you can perform at your optimum.
It's obvious to most people why dancers have to be in good shape. It's less obvious to the layman, however, that physical fitness is just as important for singers. Sure, we singers aren't leaping around onstage or doing the splits in midair - but as any good singer knows, our art form is very physical and certainly requires the entire body. Obviously good, consistent practicing is the essential and central requirement of physically strong singing. However, your body is only as strong as you train it to be, so singers of all styles would do well to strengthen their muscles outside their practicing.
Before we look at the specific reasons why, however, a couple disclaimers are in order:
Disclaimer #1: Physical training cannot replace your practicing. If you're not practicing regularly, working out is not going to make you a better singer. In order for you to reap the benefits of a good workout as a singer, you must work out and practice consistently.
Disclaimer #2: I am not a fitness professional. The information I have provided here is either common knowledge, based on the physiology of the voice, and/or gleaned from my personal experience. If you are looking for detailed information about specific exercises, you should consult a medical or fitness professional.
So, now that that's out of the way.
Reason #1: Training the muscles in your core will help your posture. We can all relate to having to sit or stand for a long period of time during a rehearsal, and our bodies getting tired as a result. Training your core and back muscles will give you more physical stamina, enabling you to maintain good posture for longer, and/or without getting as tired.
Reason #2: Improving your cardiovascular stamina will help with your breath control. In conjunction with consistent practicing, it will help you to make the most of your air and will likely leave you feeling less tired and winded after singing something demanding.
Reason #3: Training your core muscles also strengthens your support. I'm not talking about just your "abs." Your front ab muscles are important, of course, but your obliques (i.e., the muscles than run along the sides of your rib cage) and your back muscles are also essential components of your support system. The stronger the muscles are across your entire core, the better your support - this means greater projection, more control, and thus more versatility in your sound.
Side note: you may hear some singers and voice teachers say that singers should not train their abs, or at least not too intensely, because it makes the muscles tight and thus less flexible in offering support. It is true that we don't want our core muscles to be tight, and that it can be difficult to sing with abs that are sore from a workout. I would caution against doing heavy ab training within a day or two of an important performance, but would encourage frequent exercise of those muscles, even to the point of mild-to-moderate soreness*. Having sore abs for a day or two is, in my opinion, a small price to pay for increased breath control.
*Mild-to-moderate soreness is the kind that still allows you to function more or less normally. If you are so sore that it's preventing you from doing normal life things, then it means you've pushed yourself too far, or done an exercise incorrectly, and you need to re-evaluate your workout.
Reason #4: A consistent exercise routine requires discipline and dedication - the same that is required for practicing - whodathunk! One thing that has made a huge difference for me is thinking of my practicing and my workouts with the same mindset - both require consistency, lest the muscles fall into disuse and become weak again; both require overcoming challenges and achieving goals; and both require mental, physical, and emotional engagement to be successful. The next time you're discouraged by a particular vocal exercise, for example, remind yourself about a challenge that you've overcome in your workouts, or vice versa. This comparison can be very encouraging and do wonders for your outlook.
Reason #5: Exercise builds confidence. It is all about rising to new challenges, meeting new goals, and cultivating a positive, can-do attitude. If you carry this mindset over into other areas of your life, you will be a happier, more motivated, and much more confident person who will face obstacles undaunted!
Stay tuned for my next post, in which I will offer some tips and ideas for singer-friendly exercises!