See a show – it’s good for you

Adrienne Wyper / 27 March 2019

Watching shows and musicals is a great way to raise your heart beat without ever leaving your seat, say scientists.



Love going to the theatre or to see a musical? Most tickets are booked by those aged over 45. There’s a frisson that we feel when we go to see a play or a musical, a quickening of the pulse as the curtain rises. And after a performance you may have noticed that you feel perky, with an added spring in your step for a while.

The audience’s focus on the events on stage puts them into a state of ‘flow’, a sense of total engagement and concentration that’s associated with positive feelings such as happiness and fulfilment.

These noticeable effects aren’t simply due to the excitement of the night out, or the enjoyment of being entertained. According to research jointly commissioned by major theatre organisations, the audience’s focus on the events on stage puts them into a state of ‘flow’, a sense of total engagement and concentration that’s associated with positive feelings such as happiness and fulfilment.

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And being part of that has the same benefits as being part of a community – if only for a couple of hours – heightening the atmosphere because we have a sense of it being a shared experience.

Whatever the show’s genre, we will watch the characters experience a range of feelings, like an emotional workout. Research into sad films confirms that watching them improves our wellbeing by triggering the release of endorphins, our feelgood hormones. And if it’s a comedy, well, we know that laughter really is the best medicine, again by upping our endorphin levels, which helps ease stress and tension.

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But the effects of seeing a play or a musical aren’t just emotional, they’re physical too. According to research, watching a live performance can have the same impact on your heart as almost half an hour’s cardio exercise, the type that raises your heart rate.

Scientists from University College London (UCL) and the University of Lancaster monitored the heart rates, brain activity and other physiological signals of audience members at a live performance of the musical Dreamgirls in London’s West End.

During the show, the tale of three female singers building a showbusiness career in the 1960s, the audience’s hearts were beating at between 50 and 70% of their maximum heart rate for just under half an hour, on average. This is the optimal rate for stimulating cardio fitness and stamina, according to the British Heart Foundation. So, as strange as it sounds, although they never left their seats, the audience members spent almost 30 minutes taking part in cardio exercise.

Dr Joseph Devlin, Head of Experimental Psychology at UCL’s Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, said: ‘This demonstration paints quite a clear picture that attending a live performance has an impact on cardiovascular activity.

By the end of the first act, heart rates nearly doubled from their resting state at the beginning, while in the second act, it tripled.

‘By the end of the first act, heart rates nearly doubled from their resting state at the beginning, while in the second act, it tripled. You see comparable changes in heart rate in professional tennis players during bursts of highly intense exertion such as long and fast rallies.’

So if you needed an excuse to go and see a show, or a way to encourage others to accompany you, tell them it’s a great alternative to the gym!

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