Take 2 dance classes and call me in the morning

Study shows how engaging with arts and culture has proven to improve mental and physical well-being

There’s a new prescription program in Newark — but this treatment comes with some serious side effects.

People taking this prescription are experiencing joy, connection, empowerment and improved mental and physical well-being. That’s because this is a different kind of medicine — engaging with arts and culture.

John Schreiber. (File photo)

And, thanks to an innovative new program run by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, health care professionals can now prescribe the arts to their patients.

What’s called “social prescribing” is the practice of connecting patients with everything that contributes to their health, holistically — not just medication to counteract an illness, but everything that keeps us healthy, including food, transportation and housing. Things often referred to as “social determinants of health.”

Now, access to the arts — which, data shows, can be as effective in preserving our mental and physical health as good food and exercise — can be offered by doctors as well.

Research from the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine’s EpiArts Lab shows that — across age groups and demographics — people who engage in the arts live longer, healthier lives. For example, going to a museum or concert just once or twice a month has a similar protective value to health as exercising for an hour or two per week, according to EpiArts Lab.

Benefits include:

  • Healthy aging: Up 84%;
  • Social support: Up 59%
  • Symptoms of depression: Down 48%
  • Feelings of loneliness: Down 24%
Jonathan Pearson. (LinkedIn)

The first arts-on-prescription pilot program in the U.S., a Massachusetts initiative called CultureRx initiated by the Mass Cultural Council, was informed by the work of Aly Maier Lokuta and other national experts on the impact of the arts on health and well-being. Last year, Lokuta joined NJPAC as the arts center’s senior director of arts and well-being.

Thanks to founding support from Horizon and RWJBarnabas Health, NJPAC was able to establish a set of new initiatives under the banner of “Arts & Well-Being,” to examine and expand access to the health benefits offered by the arts. A pilot program using social prescribing to increase access to the visual and performing arts was one of the initiative’s first projects.

“As I began leading NJPAC’s Arts & Well-Being initiatives, I knew that there was a key opportunity for a successful arts-on-prescription pilot,” Lokuta said.

“Newark has a uniquely vibrant and diverse arts and culture sector, and social prescribing is an excellent way to connect more people to these available resources, expanding participation in the arts. And, from day one, Horizon has been an engaged and enthusiastic partner, excited to add arts and culture to their toolkit for enhancing health and well-being for all.”

Over the last year, NJPAC’s Arts & Well-Being team partnered with Horizon to integrate arts and culture into the existing social prescribing structure within a comprehensive program to address social determinants of health. The resulting pilot program, ArtsRx, officially launched July 1.

Patients who are eligible Horizon members can now receive — for free — six months of arts and culture activities across a prism of arts organizations throughout Newark. They can come to a show at NJPAC, attend a bookmaking workshop at the Newark Museum of Art, go to Latin Dance night at Symphony Hall or participate in a glass workshop at GlassRoots.

ArtsRx aligns with Horizon’s efforts to assess members’ social determinants of health and connect them with necessary local resources. As ArtsRx’s first partner, Horizon is eager to see how this enhancement has an impact on members’ health and well-being over time. So far, Horizon’s “ArtsRx prescribers” and members have shared their positive experiences with the program — and all involved are committed to staying in close touch with the ArtsRx team to make adjustments to the program’s design as the first phase of this pilot progresses. Expanding the program to provide ArtsRx services to even more recipients is the next step in advancing this exciting work.

The ArtsRx program is featured in a new publication, the Arts-on-Prescription Field Guide, published by Mass Cultural Council and Dr. Tasha Golden.

From our perspective, the best way to move this work forward and to expand the evidence base that the arts are good for our health is for more of these pilots to be developed across the U.S.

That’s exactly what the Field Guide hopes to enable, by reaching community-engaged arts organizations and health providers who can bring pilots like this to their own communities. We hope that you’ll take the time to learn more about arts-on-prescription and the broader health benefits of the arts by reading the Field Guide here.

In the meantime, the next time you walk through the Prudential Hall Lobby on your way from a performance at NJPAC and notice that you feel better than you did walking in, know that there’s science behind that feeling. Because, like exercise and good nutrition, the arts are good for your health.

John Schreiber is CEO of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Jonathan Pearson is the executive director, corporate social responsibility, at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.