Edinburgh festival can be good for your health – Dr Catherine Calderwood

For me, August in Edinburgh means one thing above all else: festival fever. As Chief Medical Officer, it is the only “outbreak” that I take pleasure in announcing, writes Dr Catherine Calderwood.
Aerial and contemporary circus performer Bev Grant from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show Heroes (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)Aerial and contemporary circus performer Bev Grant from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show Heroes (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)
Aerial and contemporary circus performer Bev Grant from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe show Heroes (Picture: Andrew Milligan/PA Wire)

The city is a hub of joy and energy for residents and visitors alike. Every wall, lamppost and street corner is coated in posters inviting us to discover new creative talents or marvel at established stars. The eyes of the arts and entertainment world are focused firmly on Scotland. And each year, Scotland delivers.

But there’s another reason why I love Edinburgh’s festivals. They immerse us in culture and this can have positive effects on health and wellbeing. There is growing evidence in Scotland that people who participate in culture feel they have better health and better quality of life than those who do not. This isn’t necessarily reserved for just going events like a festival. It may be visiting cultural places, such as libraries, museums and cinemas, or engaging in cultural activities, like reading for pleasure, dancing or crafts. Culture brings us together, gives us purpose and makes us feel connected rather than isolated.

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At first glance, the worlds of health and culture look very different. Some might even say incompatible. Take medicine and the arts for example. Medicine is viewed as an applied scientific discipline based heavily on evidence and framed by regulations and guidelines. The arts represent creativity and imagination and, rather than being confined by rules, often make the greatest impact by pushing the boundaries of expression. But when we look closer, we can see how culture can benefit health.

The arts can raise awareness of important issues. In recent years at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, I’ve seen fantastic shows tackling subjects ranging from the worldwide threat of antibiotic resistance to people’s experience of death, dying and bereavement. The shows provided enlightenment and entertainment.

This is the magic of the arts. The ability to tell stories that connect with people of all backgrounds. The skill of exploring complex, specialist subjects so that we can understand, reflect and often laugh or cry at the same time. This can have a far greater impact than a leaflet in a GP surgery, a public health document or a statement from a Chief Medical Officer.

Next, consider the benefits of culture on physical, mental and social wellbeing. Look at The Cheyne Gang, a singing group in Edinburgh, Borders and Glasgow. It was set up for people living with long-term respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic asthma. Members come together for breathing exercises, vocal exercises, a cup of tea and to sing. The group has had measurable improvements in their quality of life and many now feel less breathless.

Look at how singing and dancing can reduce people’s levels of stress, anxiety and depression. How dance and music can help patients with Parkinson’s disease with their movements. How music therapy can bring comfort and pleasure to dementia patients, as championed by broadcaster Sally Magnusson and her Playlist for Life charity. How our Maggie’s Centres and our hospices use art therapy to help people manage the physical and psychological symptoms associated with cancer. The list goes on.

So let us not overlook the importance of culture and how it can support our health. And, if you are in Edinburgh this August, enjoy the festival!

Dr Catherine Calderwood is Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer. She is grateful to her clinical fellow, Dr Stephen Fenning, for his contribution to this article.