Statistics show that during winter months the rates of depression, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and suicides increase. Of course, when we are dealing with a long-term mental disorder, we should look for professional help. For those of us, however, who experience bouts of low mood and lack of energy from the darkness and cold weather only occasionally, there are many things that can help us feel better and more energetic. It is common knowledge, that physical activity has significant benefits for our mental and physical health. Yet, when we are experiencing a lack of energy and low mood, it can be hard to push ourselves to get up and exercise – we just might not feel like it. Thankfully, several studies have found that something as easy and enjoyable as listening to music can motivate us and give us a boost to get up and get ready for exercise.

Music is often used to regulate mood, mental arousal, emotional state, and to evoke memories.1,2,3,4  It is present in every culture in the world and has ancient roots.2,5  Elite athletes have been known to listen to music before competitions and in warm-ups and training sessions because during physical activity, listening to music can produce mental and ergogenic benefits for us.1,6  It has been reported to increase positive and reduce negative mood, help with pre-event relaxation and post-event recovery, reduce ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) during aerobic exercise, enhance acquisition of motor skills, increase work output, affect oxygen uptake, and reduce inhibitions.1,3,6,7,8  Only when we are working in anaerobic zone (maximum effort in short amount of time), music might not have a significant impact on our physical performance, although contradicting results have been found.1,6,7  This means that listening to music we like can motivate us to get up and get ready to exercise, work out for a longer time and put more effort into it.

Of course, music can help us in any moment in life, not just whilst we are exercising. Physiologically, there are several pathways by which music produces all these psychological benefits in us. It has been found that music and music-induced chills produce reduced activity in amygdala2,9  – a brain region associated with anxiety – and increase the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in our pleasure and reward systems.10   Listening and performing music also lowers the levels of cortisol and increases the levels of endogenous opioids in our brain, leading to anxiety and pain reduction;1, 5, 9  reduces inflammatory markers and increases activation of natural killer cells;5  and affects our heart rate and blood pressure, with high tempo music resulting in elevation of these parameters, whilst low tempo music reduces these.5

So should we listen to high tempo upbeat songs when we’re feeling sad? Not necessarily. Research has come across a paradox - listening to sad music can controversially make us feel happier. Researchers have tried to find the explanation for this paradox from philosophy, psychology, and neurology and have suggested several reasons. Physiologically, when experiencing sadness, our body produces a hormone called prolactin, which produces feelings of tranquillity, calmness, well-being, or consolation, leading to a positive “feel-good” state.11  The sadness we experience from listening to sad music is short-lived, which is why we feel the benefits of prolactin immediately. Psychologically, when we are sad, we often feel misunderstood. Listening to happy music in this state would only increase this feeling, but by listening to sad music we are able to connect and relate to the song/melody which in turn gives us the sense of being understood and this will make us feel better.4  It has also been suggested that listening to sad music when feeling low or depressed might be a self-regulatory coping mechanism.4  Therefore, we don’t necessarily have to listen to upbeat and happy songs to reap the benefits music has on our mood.

To take it one step further, music has a significant impact on our movement. Most of us are familiar with the effect music can have on us – unintentionally we may find our foot tapping to the beat, our body swaying, and shoulders shimmying. And voila! Suddenly we feel happier and more energetic. Our brain has a fantastic ability to regulate our mood12  and boost creativity13  via body postures. If we are stuck in a chair at work, simply sitting up straight and improving our posture can boost our self-esteem, confidence, awareness, alertness, personal empowerment, energy levels, and reduce cortisol (known as a stress hormone) levels in our body.14,15  If, however, we have a chance to get up and move a bit, taking the opportunity to put on some music and dance can significantly improve not only our cardiovascular, respiratory, skeletal, and muscular systems, but also our mood and cognitive skills.16  This makes sense as dancing combines the two activities that have proven to result in several mental and physical benefits – physical activity and listening to music. A specific form of psychotherapy  - dance/movement therapy (DMT) - is based on these therapeutic benefits of dancing.17  

Apart from the physical aspect of dancing, it also engages several brain areas and promotes neuroplasticity. Structurally, dancing can increase hippocampal volume, grey matter volume in the left precentral and parahippocampal gyrus, and white matter integrity.18  Functionally, it can significantly improve mood,  memory, attention, balance, and psychosocial parameters.18,19  Dance interventions have been found to be effective in the treatments of Parkinson’s Disease,20  Alzheimer’s,21,22  anxiety,23  and depression.24  The intensity of the dance interventions have varied and significant benefits have been recorded for both light and moderate intensity dance sessions.19  

As we have seen, something as easy and low-cost as listening to music and dancing can have significant benefits for our physical and mental health. Whether we are looking to get some motivation to get up and go to the gym, looking to feel understood during difficult times, or prevent or treat depression, anxiety, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s, music holds the key for us. Let’s take good care of our physical and mental health. Let’s dance.

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