How the Arts Improves Health and Fitness

Painting at the hospital

During the past several years, there’s been an increasing understanding of the significant role that participating in the arts can play with health and well-being. Combined with medicine and proper care, the arts can enhance the health of those with physical and/or mental health conditions. Being involved in the arts can also promote the prevention of illness and increase overall well-being. The arts can improve the environment of healthcare settings while improving employee retention and morale.

Although this idea goes by several names (arts for health, arts in health, arts and health, among others) they are all basically promoting the positive benefits that hands-on activities can have on the health and fitness of people and communities. As progress in this area continues to grow, so too have the results being documented, and researchers across the country and around the globe are looking into the part that the arts play in maintaining and improving health.

Who Works in This Area?

Individuals with varying backgrounds can be found working with arts and health. These include arts therapists, researchers and curators who manage arts programs in hospitals. There are also many individuals and organisations who work in the community providing arts opportunities to people experiencing ill health. Other artists and arts practitioners work in medical schools, with architects and in the field of health promotion. More information about the different areas of work in arts in health is listed below.

What sort of thing does arts in health involve?

There are, broadly, five main areas of arts in health work:

Arts in the healthcare environment: For the past thirty years, many hospitals have chosen to incorporate artwork into the healthcare environment to improve the experience of patients and staff. Nowadays, most hospitals have art exhibitions and many have artists working to improve lighting, wayfinding, gardens and clinical areas.

Participatory arts programs: Getting involved in the arts provides both social and creative outlets for people who are ill – either with physical health issues or mental health issues. Many care homes, GP surgeries and hospitals as well as community settings provide opportunities for people to engage with the arts as a tool to improving their wellbeing.

Medical training and Medical Humanities: For hundreds of years, the arts have played a part in developing the practice of medicine and the understanding of wellbeing. Lots of doctors will now have an arts aspect to their training and many health-workers find that active participation in arts activity helps them with their work. The arts are also often used to help explore ethical issues in medicine.

Arts Therapy: Arts therapists are registered with the Health Professions Council and are accredited forms of therapy which use the arts as their primary form of communication. The arts therapies (drama, music and visual art) have now become an established psychotherapeutic tool for used by qualified therapists with clients, usually on a one to one basis.

Arts on Prescription: Arts on Prescription schemes provide arts and creative activities for participants, usually for people experiencing mental health problems and social isolation. The purpose of such schemes is not to replace conventional therapies but rather to act as an adjunct, helping people in their recovery through creativity and increasing social engagement. Although the schemes are varied in their approaches and settings, the common theme is that there is a referral process. See Arts & Health South West’s Arts on Prescription fact sheet for more information.

How it is paid for?

As might be expected from the breadth of work in arts in health – there is a wide range of different funding sources for this work. Much of this work is funded from charitable sources – many hospitals for example, have their own charities which fund arts activity. Occasionally the NHS in a particular region will fund an arts organisation to work on a particular campaign or programme of activity. Community groups and charities often choose to raise money to fund this work. In the past, local authorities and the Lottery have also funded lots of work in this area. Arts Council England has funded a number of organisations including London Arts in Health Forum which has paid for and developed this website. There is information about potential funding here .

Does it work? Is there any evidence?

There is now a growing body of evidence demonstrating that participation in the arts and access to a range of arts opportunities can dramatically improve health outcomes and increase wellbeing. Much of this can be found on our research pages. In 2007, the Department of Health’s Review of Arts and Health Working Group, examined the role the arts can play in health. Its key findings were:

• arts and health are, and should be firmly recognised as being, integral to health, healthcare provision and healthcare environments, including supporting staff
• arts and health initiatives are delivering real and measurable benefits across a wide range of priority areas for health, and can enable the Department and NHS to contribute to key wider Government initiatives
• there is a wealth of good practice and a substantial evidence base
• the Department of Health has an important leadership role to play in creating an environment in which arts and health can prosper by promoting, developing and supporting arts and health

In 2011, the British Medical Association published a paper on ‘The psychological and social needs of patients’ which found that:

Creating a therapeutic healthcare environment extends beyond the elimination of boredom. Arts and humanities programmes have been shown to have a positive effect on inpatients. The measured improvements include:

• inducing positive physiological and psychological changes in clinical outcomes
• reducing drug consumption
• shortening length of hospital stay
• promoting better doctor-patient relationships
• improving mental healthcare

Visit the Resources section of this site to see a range of examples of research into the impact the arts can have on health and wellbeing.

Changes in the national health service

As the health service changes, so too does the way in which the arts are used to engage with health. Some of the new Clinical Commissioning Groups are likely to offer arts activity to their patients and as local authorities assume responsibility for public health, so the arts are likely to be used by them to help promote healthy communities. In the resources section there are details of websites with more information about the history of arts in health and also links to sites which analyse the current round of changes to the health sector and their impact on arts in health here.

Over the course of 2012, the National Alliance for Arts Health and Wellbeing brought together many of these people to write a Charter for arts in health – explaining why we feel the arts have a key role to play in health and wellbeing. You can read the Charter here.

What is the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing?

The National Alliance for Arts, Health & Wellbeing launched in 2012 and aims to provide a clear, focused voice to articulate the role creativity can play in health and wellbeing. It governed by a board of trustees made up of representatives from nine regional organisations and is supported administratively by London Arts in Health Forum – please direct any queries to [email protected].