Wouldn’t it be great if you could reap the benefits of exercise by doing something most everyone considers as fun, relaxing entertainment? The surprising results of a new study show you can.

All you have to do for this enjoyable, calorie-burning, brain-health boosting activity is to attend a live stage show or go to the movie theater.

Of course, most shows and theaters are still closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but when they reopen – and they will – there’s even more reason to venture out for some much-needed entertainment.

In 2017, Dr. Joseph Devlin, Head of Experimental Psychology at University College London, led a small trial, sending off a dozen volunteers to watch a musical while wearing heart rate monitoring technology.

During the performance the audience members experienced an average of 28 minutes with their heart rates elevated to the range identified as optimal for heart fitness by the American Heart Association (AHA).

It seems a good movie sequence can make your heart beat faster – and that’s good for us.

Reaching Target Heart Rate

According to the AHA, target heart rate during a moderately intense workout is about 50 to 70 percent of the maximum heart rate, which is 220 beats per minute (bpm) minus your age.

So, for example, an average 60-year-old attendee at the musical would have a maximum heart rate of 160 bpm, and would have spent nearly half an hour within the 80 to 112 bpm target during the performance.

Summing up the results of the trial, Dr. Devlin said, “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 bursts of highly intense exertion such as long and fast rallies.”

Hearts Beat as One

A few years later, Dr. Devlin’s team carried out a larger trial.

This time, 51 volunteers were sent to the movie theater to watch the two-hour, live-action remake of Aladdin. Another group of 26 acted as controls by reading a novel.

Dr. Devlin found heart rate only increased among the moviegoers, with their heart rates spending an average of 45 minutes in the ‘healthy heart zone’.

Even more interesting, the heartbeats of the audience also appeared to synchronize, beating in unison. This phenomenom is known as entrainment. The study authors believe this synchronicity creates a feeling of togetherness.

The research begs the question, would this happen at a sporting event? What about a music concert? I suspect it might. Perhaps one day, scientists will explore potential heart health benefits of other large, communal events.

Builds Mental Resilience

Dr. Devlin’s team also said the unbroken concentration that comes from visiting a movie theater – as distinct from watching TV at home where it’s easy to be distracted – is good for the brain.

Dr. Devlin explains why: “Cultural experiences like going to the cinema provide opportunities for our brain to devote our undivided attention for sustained periods of time.

“At the cinema specifically, there is nothing else to do except immerse yourself.

“On top of this, our ability to sustain focus and attention plays a critical role in building our mental resilience, because problem-solving typically requires a concentrated effort to overcome obstacles.

“In other words, our ability to work through problems without distraction makes us better able to solve problems and makes us more productive.

“In a world where it is increasingly difficult to step away from our devices, this level of sustained focus is good for us.”

The Best Heart-Healthy Movie

After reading about the new study, a journalist wondered what he should watch to get the best heart healthy workout.

So, he wore a personal EEG (electrocardiogram) and a tracker to monitor how many calories he burned.

Then he went to see six films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards.

While watching Jojo Rabbit, his heart rate peaked at just 81 bpm and he burned 153 calories. The film 1917 pushed his heart rate peak to 130 bpm, but burned fewer calories.

The clear winner was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with a heart rate peak of 157 bpm. Watching this film also burned 184 calories.

While I still believe that regular, moderate exercise is the key to maintaining heart health and overall health as you age, these study results are exciting. And if your favorite weekend entertainment involves going out to see movies or musicals, then you’re no doubt improving your heart health and burning some calories (so long as you keep well clear of theater popcorn and candy.)

Isolation Damages Your Health, Too

These findings also should remind us that the social isolation practiced during the pandemic lockdowns has taken a toll on our health. Sadly, not all of it is necessary. It’s been way overdone.

No, I’m not saying it’s wise to be in a crowd in a theater or anywhere else as long as the pandemic rages. But we should all consciously try to counter the damage of isolation by looking for safe ways to get out and about and interact with other people. One helpful thing I can think of would be the repeal of foolish rules in some states against even going outside for a walk at a safe distance from others.


  1. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2017/sep/going-theatre-can-have-same-impact-your-heart-
    30-mins-cardio-exercise
  2. https://nypost.com/2020/01/13/going-to-movie-theater-counts-as-a-light-workout/