- New study from University College London, University of Lancaster and Encore Tickets examines heart rates of theatre goers
- Findings reveal watching live theatre produces the same heart activity as half an hour of cardio
Watching a live theatre performance can stimulate your cardiovascular system to the same extent as doing 28 minutes of healthy cardio exercise, a new study has found.
The research, conducted by University College London and the University of Lancaster in association with Encore Tickets, the UK’s leading independent ticket provider, monitored the heart rates, brain activity, and other physiological signals of 12 individuals at a live theatre performance of Dreamgirls, the Tony and Olivier award winning musical.
During the performance, the heartrates of audience members spent an average of 28 minutes beating at an elevated range between 50% – 70% of their maximum heart rate. The British Heart Foundation identify this level of heartrate as the optimal heart rate to stimulate cardio fitness and stamina. So, although they were seated for the performance, audience members spent an average of 28 minutes engaged in healthy cardio exercise.
Dr Joseph Devlin, Head of Experimental Psychology at University College London, says: “This demonstration paints quite a clear picture that attending a live performance has an impact on cardiovascular activity.”
The study showed that two of the most interesting peaks in heartrate activity come just before the start of the interval, and at the end of the show. The soar from a lower heart rate suggesting captivated concentration, to a higher peak of arousal reflects the surge of deep emotion and energy seen on stage.
Dr Joseph Devlin continues: “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 burst of highly intense exertion such as long and fast rallies.”
Theatre experts at Encore Tickets note that Dreamgirls is unique amongst current West End shows as it often receives a mid-show standing ovation as well as at the climax of the show.
Over the past decade, scientists have explored a range of studies have shown that listening to music and experiencing live events can have a positive impact on our well-being. However, until now, no one has looked into the benefits of attending a live theatre performance, despite the numerous apparent effects it has. New research for Encore Tickets shows that for a third of people (33 per cent), the thing they most enjoy about the theatre is the feeling the live experience gives them, such as emotions and goosebumps. Yet, only 15 per cent have noticed a change in their breathing, whether that’s slower or faster, whilst almost one third (31 per cent) have experienced gasping or jumping in shock.
Recent advances in wearable technology have allowed scientists to gauge the emotional engagement of groups spectating and participating in performance, ceremony and social interactions. They can track various physiological signals linked to the autonomic nervous system, which in turn relates to emotion and arousal. These signals can then be averaged across audience members give an indication of the time-course of a shared experience. As part of the study, University College London neuroscientists also conducted a literature review of other research that supported their findings on the thrill of live theatre, and the interesting impact it has. One study they reference tracked the heart rate of students during a lecture, using it as a measure of their interest and engagement.
Messages from the heart are not as straightforward, however. A higher average heart rate does not necessarily indicate a higher overall emotional or cognitive engagement in a performance or a lecture. This is because sometimes at moments of deeper engagement and concentration, arousal and heart rate can decrease. What might be indicative of a richer experience is a greater range of heart rate responses, from a low heart rate of concentrated engagement to a peak of arousal. For example, the UCL neuroscientists reference another study, which tracked heart rates of audience members listening to either a live performance by a pianist, or a video recording of that performance. They found that only during the live performance did the audience’s heart beat shift in response to the tempo of the music.
Dr Joseph Devlin, says: “Within the results of the heart rate data from the theatre audience, there was a large dynamic range consistent with the fact that being in a live audience increases the emotional intensity of the experience. The results indicate that the highs and lows of the theatre performance allow for a range of emotions that can stimulate the heart and induce heartrate activity that is parallel to an exerting cardio work out.
|Figure 1 Individual heart rates of 12 audience members. The red zone indicates the zone of increased heart rate that is recommended for healthy exercise. Vertical lines (here are in other figures) show the start of the show, the start and end of interval, and the end of the show