Cardiorespiratory Health and The Singer's Vocal Performance
As I was reading up on cardiorespiratory health and its relevance to the human body's overall health, something dawned on me. The main job of the cardiorespiratory system is to deliver oxygen to the body. Better cardiorespiratory health lowers one's heart rate at a higher work level and allows for more oxygen to reach the body at a higher work level. OR in other terms, breathing becomes easier during higher intensity movement. I thought, "what does this mean for me as a singer?"
As singers, we largely rely on breath to carry out and sustain vocal power. And on top of that, in musical theatre, we singers need to be able to do this while performing stage blocking and even during intense dance sequences. If cardiorespiratory training improves our breathing, then in theory, the more we work to improve our cardiorespiratory health, the more efficiently we will be able to deliver our vocals during performance. I wanted to do some research and find out just how valid this theory might be.
Benefits of Improved Cardiorespiratory Health for Singers: The Basic Science
I thought I should start by listing out the benefits of cardiorespiratory training that I thought would be relevant to higher performance efficiency. See the list below (I used the National Academy of Sports Medicine, where I am studying to become a personal trainer, as my resource for this list).
As you can see from the list above, there are numerous benefits to cardiorespiratory training. The question is, how do these improvements to cardiorespiratory health pertain to singing specifically? WELL, let's begin by talking about the possible improvements on the act of singing alone.
Cardiorespiratory exercise can improve vocal stamina. Vocal stamina is a singer's ability to sustain long phrases as well as maintain vocal health over a period of time that may require high vocal demand (like Broadway's eight-show week). A regular cardio training regiment improves the body's lung ventilation, therefore improving one's ability to take in air and expire it out with control using strengthened respiratory muscles. This allows a singer to produce more sound in length or volume with each breath (breath is necessary for the vocal chords to produce sound) and likely prevents excessive straining of the vocal folds and other muscles of the throat due to fatigue.
When we sing a long phrase or note, we are sustaining an inhale, and slowly exhaling with sound. The longer we can sustain the exhale, the longer we can sustain sound without collapsing due to lack of oxygen intake. While this does require some vocal training, think back to my list and remember that improved cardio fitness results in better oxygen transport through the body. Therefore, if you have great cardiorespiratory fitness, a sustained breath for will deliver enough oxygen to allow the body to function while prolonging time before the next breath is needed, hence giving you the ability to hold that final note of "Don't Rain on My Parade" without faltering.
Well what about singing and moving--or dancing--at the same time? Improved cardiorespiratory fitness offers a bit of a chain of benefits that basically strengthens our physical stamina. Regularly engaging in moderate to vigorous cardio exercise results in physiological adaptations that ultimately strengthen the heart. A stronger heart is able to pump blood more efficiently, develop a lower arterial blood pressure, and therefore allows the body to operate with a lower heart rate at a higher intensity movement level. And as discussed earlier, oxygen transport is improved and therefore muscles are able to use oxygen more efficiently.
In musical theatre we are expected to participate in aerobic dance numbers while singing our faces off. When we engage in physical exercise, our breathing rate raises from about 15 breaths per minute during rest to about 40-60 breaths per minute. If controlled breath is necessary to sing, how can we expect to get a full vocal phrase out without gasping for air every few words? The answer is the physiological adaptations that I mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Let's say I have fantastic cardiorespiratory health. This means when I go to kick my face and belt the ending of "Be Our Guest," my heartrate won't be as high as Karen's next to me. My body will be transporting oxygen to my muscles more efficiently, and I won't fatigue as quickly. If my muscles aren't running out of oxygen too quickly, then I won't need to breathe as heavily and frequently, thus allowing me to sing that last chorus much more comfortably than Karen.
Bonus Benefits of Improved Cardiorespiratory Fitness
Improved cardiorespiratory health also produces increased mental alertness and better ability to relax and sleep. These are huge benefits for us stage performers! I don't need to explain how having more mental alertness can be helpful in our everyday lives in addition to auditions, the rehearsal room, and during performance, but I will remind your that our peers and our superiors, creatives, casting directors, etc., will remember us as performers who are present and ready to get the work done. And they will continue to hire us, or give us glowing recommendations to other companies, over and over again.
Similar to mental alertness, the ability to relax and get quality sleep is vital to the way we operate and conduct ourselves at work. Quality sleep reduces stress and improves memory so that we may learn and retain our lines, lyrics, blocking, and choreography without becoming overwhelmed. Sleep also reduces inflammation and helps the body repair itself. Perhaps we ran the most vocally demanding song a few too many times and our voice is feeling tired, or maybe we learned some choreography that put a large demand on our muscles and now we are experiencing soreness. During sleep our bodies experience increased blood supply to muscles, tissue growth and repair, and muscle development, which allows us to bounce back and work efficiently at rehearsal the following day.
Performers Should Implement Cardiorespiratory Training
Working on improving our cardiorespiratory health can truly make us better employees, performers, artists.
We've all been there. You walk into rehearsal the first day or two and learn the vocals and choreography for the most highly demanding number in the show, and by the time the end button hits you are DYING--gasping for air, stomach cramping, muscles like noodles. AND THEN when you're well into the run of the show this number seems like a piece of cake! That is your body physiologically adapting to the cardiorespiratory demands you placed on it with this song and dance number. Now imagine if you implemented regular moderate to vigorous cardio training prior to rehearsal? There will always be necessary adaptations that your body will need to make when singing new material and dancing new choreography (and doing it all at the same time), but imagine what improvements that might make to that very first full designer run through with every creative team and production team member present. Just think about it for a second.
Singers should implement cardiorespiratory training into their training regiment! I'll say it again, SINGERS SHOULD ENGAGE IN REGULAR CARDIO FITNESS TRAINING. Even if you're a mover, not a shaker, singers of all performance levels can benefit from the physiological adaptations that occur when we train our cardiorespiratory health. Singers are often asked to park-and-bark, but singers are also often required to move briskly across the stage while singing, and they need to be ready. After learning what I have through my research, I know I'm planning to up my own cardio game!
Now, as a soon-to-be personal trainer, I can't just leave you hanging with that. I have to admit, cardio is not my favorite form of training, but I do it because I know my body and mind will benefit from it. It is suggested that adults engage in about 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity per week. This means approximately 30 minutes per day for 5 days per week. If you're like me and you dislike running, you might be cringing right now, but fear not, running is not the only form of cardio out there! Actually, cardio can be considered any activity that keeps your heart rate above a certain level for a sustained period of time (ideal heart rate is determined by age and current physical capability), pumping oxygenated blood to working muscles. Additional examples of cardio include brisk walking, swimming, cycling, kickboxing, dancing, high intensity interval training (body or weighted exercises), jumping rope, and so much more!
My biggest piece of advice is to find what you enjoy! When we enjoy exercise, we are much more likely to be consistent and stick with it. My choice of cardio is typically a 10-15 minute jog warm-up and interval training with weights (taking little to no rest). I personally enjoy this because it makes me feel powerful and strong, and because of that, it is easy for me to stick to! Plus, it helps when I put on a kick-ass playlist on my Spotify, or listen to one of my favorite podcasts. They make the time pass quickly, and I even end up having a little fun with it.
What is your favorite form of cardio exercise? How has cardio helped you in your performance career? I want to know! Comment here or send me an email at TheBroadwayBod@gmail.com.
Now go forth, be healthy, and break a leg!