Circus Arts for Health

This article was originally published in the Dec 2013/Jan 2014 edition of San Francisco Medicine, the official medical journal of the San Francisco Medical Society. You can find the issue online here, the article is on page 17. 

Thanks to the growing popularity of internal production companies like Cirque du Soleil, the circus arts have become a hot trend in exercise and fitness. No longer the animal-centric carnivals and sideshows of the past, the athleticism of the contemporary circus is attracting more recreationalists to the sport than ever before.

Circus Center, located in San Francisco’s Cole Valley neighborhood, provides opportunities for students to train recreationally in the circus arts. With nearly 100 classes a week, ranging from classical mime to handstands, aerial conditioning and flying trapeze, we have more ways than ever for students (young and old) to exercise in a fun, exciting, and unique way. What does training in the circus arts actually provide?

The circus arts offer three forms of anaerobic exercise: supported (activities interacting with the ground), suspended (activities requiring hanging or suspension above the ground), and flight-based (activities accomplished while airborne). All three types of workouts require full range of motion and core strength. The wide range of physical movements also contribute to building cardiorespiratory fitness, strength, vascular fitness, and sensorimotor skills.

Acrobatics, such as tumbling and handstands, are full-body exercises that require upper body strength and balance. They promote positive blood flow and core and bone strength. Even the simplest tumbling exercises, like cartwheels and round-offs, involve the transfer of energy, weight and balance from the feet onto the hands and back again. Such exercises can help overall body awareness and functional flexibility; meanwhile many detrimental body conditions such as poor posture must be overcome to successfully tumble.

Other circus art forms require the performer to adapt body and movements to a particular apparatus. The aerial arts, including the trapeze, tissu (aerial silk), and rope, require immense upper body and core strength; and they cultivate muscle groups in the back muscles, glutes and thighs. The suspended nature of aerial apparatuses helps decompress joints and elongate muscles.

Finally, if laughter is the best medicine, clowning fits the bill. Physical and mental coordination are required for elements of physical comedy, balancing, and, of course, juggling. In fact, a recent study in the journal Nature showed that juggling can actually increase the amount of gray matter in the mid-temporal area and the posterior intraparietal sulcus – the visual and motor activity centers of the brain.

There’s also significant literature to support the positive effects of humor on the brain. Laughter relaxes the whole body, boosts the immune system, triggers the release of endorphins, and improves blood flow and blood vessel function, which can protect the heart.

Circus Center supports Clown Zero and its Healing Through Humor program in residence at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. It also uses circus arts to help develop sensory integration for children with special needs. Learning and remembering sequences of movement are helpful tools in solidifying sensory processing and fending off dysfunctions in the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems. One student, for example, found that training in static trapeze helped him cope with the effects of Asperger’s syndrome.

Wendy Parkman, one of the original founders of Circus Center, has integrated the circus arts into the physical education and theater programs at the Urban School. Her Circus Techniques class techies high school students introductory tumbling, trapeze, and clowning to encourage timing, balance, and pushing their creative limits.

People used to think of the circus as an activity at the fringes of society. Today, circus is emerging as a respected art form, requiring strength and mental fortitude. It is also a fitness option for ordinary people, one that can provide exceptional health benefits within a unique and fun environment.

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