Flow Arts and Fitness

The Flow Arts are a fun pastime that allow people be creative while connecting to other people with the same passion, but do they have any additional benefits to the people who practice them?

Today, we’re going to talk about the health effects of the Flow Arts, good and bad, and what that means for the people who practice them.

Flow Arts for Fitness

When I first took up poi spinning, a big part of the reason was that it was a type of exercise that allowed me to be creative while giving my body a good workout. It helped me develop my upper-body strength and the focus required to practice would clear my head on difficult days. A friend once lent me her Fitbit one weekend while we were at a Fire Festival and we were both surprised to find that on average I was burning about 3,000 calories per day at the event.

I’ve known a lot of friends who’ve reported positive side-effects from the Flow Arts for maladies ranging from depression, anxiety, drug addiction, and many more. I’ve taught poi spinning as a therapy for post-traumatic stress, multiple sclerosis, and injury rehabilitation.

Risk of Injury

All that said, I’ve known lots of people who’ve been injured while spinning. Poi and other twin prop spinners are at risk for developing a myriad of shoulder syndromes including rotator cuff tendonitis, sub-acromial bursitis, and subacromial impingement. Basically, the shoulder blade has to be stable for anything that involves moving the arm around a lot because it anchors the shoulder joint and if it’s not, the muscles around it risk injury.

For hoopers and contact staff spinners, the problems are more likely to be in developing flexibility without hypermobility. Frequently hoopers and contact staff spinners contort their backs into a variety of extreme positions without first developing the muscles to support this kind of flexibility. With hoops, this tends to be a problem in the lower back and for contact staff more of a problem in the neck and upper back.

In addition, staff spinners who use a lot of neck traps risk tightening their scapular elevators. This can lead to weakness in the upper extremity or impinge painfully on the spinal nerves. Because of this, staff spinners should work to balance out their scapular muscles by strengthening their lower scapular muscles as well as thoracic extensors.

Health Benefits--How to Weigh the Evidence

But what are the proven benefits of flow arts? I’d like to give you all as accurate a picture as I can, but that’s going to have to include a couple caveats as well as a bit of background on how scientific research into health is done.

You can think of there essentially being a pyramid of credibility when it comes to evidence supporting a given conclusion.

  • At the bottom of the pyramid are anecdotal cases, hunches, or second-hand information. Isolated stories or ideas that don’t overall add up to a complete picture but might make you interested in exploring the conclusion they suggest further.
  • Next up the pyramid we have studies and experiments, where researchers test out a hunch by assembling either a group of people to report data related to that hunch or to ask them to try out some form of intervention to see if it has any effect on them. These tend to start off with small groups of people and work their way to larger ones--it’s important to note that finding a result in a small group of people can be promising but isn’t a rock solid conclusion. You could have accidentally selected a small group of people with some rare trait in common or there might be a bias on the part of the researcher that influenced the result. Please note: there are lots of different types of studies that have varying degrees of credibility, but to keep things brief and easier to understand I’m just looping them all together here.
  • Next we have a randomized control trial. This is where researchers put together a group of people and randomly assign those people to two or more groups that include at least one intervention group and one control group that does not receive the intervention. This allows us to double-check and see if the benefits we say from a study of a small group of people are actually related to the intervention or if they’re just a side-effect of the testing environment. When it comes to science, being able to prove that your intervention is more effective than nothing is critical.
  • Finally, at the top of the pyramid we have meta analyses. Meta analyses are reviews of multiple studies on a given topic that may or may not include randomized control trials. These are essentially reviews of large swaths of research--did lots of people studying the same topic find the same results? Did two different studies reach two different conclusions? Combining the results of multiple studies widens the overall sample size and thus are less likely to have problems with biases in selection or on the part of researchers, plus which they allow the reviewers to spot problems in a given study’s methods. If a conclusion is supported by meta analysis, it means there is a lot of evidence to support it.

When it comes to the Flow Arts, there hasn’t yet been terribly much research done, so I’ve gone ahead and looked at some of the research for pursuits that are reasonably close to what we do such as dance, yoga, and martial arts. Take these results with a grain of salt--just because these hobbies may be similar doesn’t mean they’re a perfect match. And now, in the words of one of my favorite YouTube channels: to the research!

Health Benefits of Hobbies Similar to Flow Arts

Quite a lot of the research on dance has been done on older people--seeing if it has any health benefits to the elderly. One 2010 study found that dancers on average had higher cognitive performance, shorter reaction times, and motor function to non-dancers. The interesting thing about this study was that it revealed that dancers didn’t perform better on these tasks than individual non-dancers, but that the dancer group lacked individual poor performers. Basically, the divide between poor and high performing dancers was much narrower and much higher than non-dancers.

A 2013 follow-up randomized control trial tested two groups of elderly participants, none of whom had done much physical exercise in the past five years, and gave some of them an hour’s worth of dance instruction a week and the other nothing. After 6 months, the group given dance instruction showed an improvement of 15% in tactile skills, a 24% decrease in reaction time, and a 10% increase in cognitive skills. Not bad!

A 2013 meta analysis found good evidence to support the conclusion that dance confers a whole host of cognitive and physical benefits that includes but isn’t limited to improvements in balance, posture, and reaction time.

What about martial arts?

A 2013 study on 25 older adults with moderate peripheral neuropathy found good evidence that regular Tai Chi practice improved balance, flexibility, muscular and skeletal strength, as well as reduced the participants’ fear of falling. That’s a big deal for elderly people who lose mobility when they become afraid to move around.

When it comes to yoga, a 2002 study found that daily one hour yoga sessions done for three months could lower blood pressure and reduce many other cardiovascular risk factors. A 2005 meta analysis concluded that yoga might have a beneficial impact to people suffering from depression and suggested that further study in the area was warranted.

So is there any scientific research about the Flow Arts out there at all? Yes! But not much.

The Research on Flow Arts

A 2007 study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise found that hooping was an effective form of exercise on par with cardio kickboxing or step aerobics. On average, they found hoopers burn 7 calories per minute, reach an average heart rate of 151 beats per minute, and consume 20 liters of oxygen per kilogram per minute, making hooping an excellent aerobic workout.

A 2009 study scanned the brains of subjects taught a basic three-ball cascade juggling pattern. This study found the first evidence ever that training a difficult physical skill could alter the structure of the white matter in a healthy adult brain.

There was a follow-up 2014 randomized controlled trial that without a doubt is one of the most interesting pieces of research I read while putting this video together. The researchers took 40 adults and split them randomly into 3 groups: one control group and two juggling groups. The first juggling group was asked to practice for 15 minutes/day and the second for 30 seconds/day. They scanned the brains of all three groups both at the beginning of the study as well as at the end of a 29-day training period.

They found that people who started off with a higher volume of grey matter in the occipital parietal lobe of the brain--that’s the one that governs visual spacial reasoning--tended to have a steeper learning curve. They learned to juggle faster. At the end of the training period, the jugglers showed greater gains in their volume of grey matter and connections in the corpus callosum--this is the structure that communicates between both sides of the brain. People who practiced for longer periods saw a commensurate gain in the volume of their grey matter, but not in the skills they acquired during the training period. The test found no difference in the skills acquired by people whether they practiced for 15 minutes or 30 per day. The important part was that the practice was daily, not how long it was for.

There is also currently a study being conducted in New Zealand by Kate Riegle van West, the woman who invented the Orbitar. She is comparing the health effects of poi spinning to Tai Chi. As of this writing her full results and data have not been published, but I think that would make a great subject for a follow-up. Don’t you?


Flow Arts are fun, transformative, and they’re probably good for you! Do them smart and in moderation and they could have health benefits for you that will last a lifetime.

Skeptical about one or more of the studies I’ve cited in this video--please, read them for yourself! A link to each study I’ve mentioned has been included in this blog. Part of what makes science work is peer review and rebuttal. If you find another study that contradicts what I’ve said, please let me know so I can post a correction.

Do you believe the Flow Arts have had a positive effect on your health and well-being? Do you use them as a form of therapy? What for? Let me know down in the comments what kinds of positive effects the Flow Arts have had on your health.

This blog could not have been completed without the wonderful help of the following people for digging up research and contributing their own knowledge on the topic. Thank you all!

Richard Hartnell
Gina Renata
Casandra Tenenbaum
Morgan Howe
Matthew Hess

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