Vocal health reflects the overall health of the body. Physical exercise gives us vitality, bodily resilience, and mental benefits that are perhaps more important for vocalists than for the average person. For vocalists, some fitness activities are more directly useful than others. Other types of exercise put the vocal cords at risk. Few fitness instructors are trained in these areas, so you need to bring your own vocal wisdom to the gym, sports field, or dance or yoga studio.
Helpful or Harmful
The most basic fitness contribution to the voice is cardio-vascular endurance or general stamina. Regardless of the situations in which you use your voice, you’ll be served well by any activities that offer a balance of cardio fitness, flexibility and agility, and muscle toning.
Another important benefit of physical activity is to support effective management of the vocal breath by developing a balance of flexibility and power in the rib cage, waist, and abdomen. Fitness activities can also enhance your sense of body rhythm, postural balance, and awareness of subtle energy flows, all of which benefit the voice.
On the other hand, it’s important for people who depend on their voices to recognize where fitness activities and vocal development can conflict. Avoiding neck constriction or harsh, explosive vocalizing during exercise are especially important precautions to take. More subtle concerns are outer vs. inner mental focus, breath rhythm, and how much the voice itself is valued.
Outer and Inner Focus
Traditional sports, such as swimming, tennis, soccer, and basketball, as well as dance and aerobics classes, certainly build stamina and strong, efficient breathing – all good for voice, too. Notice, though, that during this kind of sport or dance activity, most of your mental focus is external — what’s happening around you. You may attend to the position of your arms and legs when learning new skills, but you use those skills toward an external goal. You may attend to the position of your arms and legs when learning new skills, but you use those skills toward an external goal.
By contrast, vocal activity happens at the center of the body and is largely out of sight. The brain sends and receives vocal messages through parts of the nervous system that are partly conscious and partly unconscious and visceral. So if developing and protecting your voice are your primary goals, find occasional moments during exercise to turn your mind inward. The details of what you monitor aren’t as important as the process of enhancing awareness of your inner body while engaging in a vigorous activity.
Another fundamental difference between voice training and most fitness activities lies in breath rhythm. During most physical exercise, we use a relatively simple breath rhythm; inhalation and exhalation are roughly equal in length. When talking or singing, however, the breath rhythm is always unequal: the inhalation is swift and the exhalation slow. So while many activities may strengthen your breathing muscles, only a few, such as swimming, reinforce the specific breath control needed for voice. Just being aware of the difference — like sensing the difference between outer and inner attention — can be useful.
You can also modify some cardio activities, practicing internals of “voice breath.” For instance, instead of matching to the same number of steps when breathing in and breathing out, try inhaling quickly and exhaling over a longer number of steps. This won’t work if you’re exercising at peak intensity; you body’s demand for oxygen and ventilation will override any other breath adjustments.
Finally, learn to keep your breath silent even during a hard workout. The sound of turbulence in your throat means that your airway is not completely open, and your vocal cords may get roughed up or unnecessarily dry from the air.