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The first national Arts in Health Conference was an inspiring example of a proactive, preventative approach to addressing social problems. Charity ‘Arts Enterprise with a Social Purpose’ (Aesop) showcased a series of pioneering arts projects that had proven benefits to people with health difficulties.

The day-long event, which took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall, was a celebration of the power of music, dance and visual art to achieve better health outcomes for people of all ages. As Aesop Chief Executive Tim Joss was keen to stress, it also had the important function of engaging health decision-makers: present at the showcase were Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt; Sir Malcolm Grant, Chair of NHS England; and Professor Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Public Health England.

Mr Joss commented: “This country is blessed with two highly developed, world-class sectors. Each faces service and financial challenges, and a cool look at the relationship between the two reveals misperceptions, limited connections and few innovations on the road to operating at scale. And yet there is abundant potential for the arts to contribute to health improvement.”

The event was the chance for Aesop and other arts advocates to demonstrate how creative and expressive projects could have a tangible effect on people’s health and wellbeing. Twenty-four different arts projects were showcased, many of which used creativity to ‘smuggle’ therapeutic exercises into an enjoyable activity, meaning that patients were significantly more likely to practise the exercises. The activities were being combined with research and clinical trials that are gradually building a solid evidence base for the benefit of arts projects in promoting better health outcomes. By developing pilots of this nature, Aesop is making the case for innovative arts initiatives that have a preventative as well as a therapeutic function when embedded more solidly within local communities.

One such project was Aesop’s own ‘Dance to Health’ initiative, which was funded by Oxfordshire Community Foundation via our Surviving Winter appeal (now Health and Wellbeing Fund). The Dance to Health project runs intensive age-appropriate dance classes for older people to improve strength, stamina and balance, thereby preventing falls and accidents that can set an older person back.

Falls are extremely traumatic for older people, and NICE estimates the cost to the NHS to be more than £2.3 billion a year. Existing falls prevention programmes have been described as “dull as dishwater” by the Royal College of Physicians, with very few providing ongoing support after a fall, resulting in any improved strength and balance being lost within 12 months. Whilst evidence-based programmes can reduce falls by 55%, only 38% of the programmes available follow the evidenced recommendations.

Dance to Health incorporates these evidence-based recommendations into a fun, sociable and ongoing activity for older people, that focuses both on immediate improvement and ongoing maintenance of strength and stability. Oxfordshire Community Foundation is delighted to have helped establish the national pilot by supporting classes at the Health and Wellbeing Centre in Abingdon, with other sessions happening in Banbury.

Participants have commented:

  • “When I arrive I have so many things going through my head and when I leave they have all disappeared. It’s so uplifting.”
  • “I enjoyed it because I didn’t realise how much mobility I still had. It gives me hope. It made me feel free.”
  • “I’ve got my mojo back!”
  • “It’s the first time I have laid down on the floor since I was in hospital. I didn’t think I could get up but I can and I did. I can crawl too.”

Dance to Health participants put on a performance at the end of the Arts in Health Conference. The project is documented in this inspiring video.

OCF’s CEO Jayne Woodley, who attended the conference, commented: “OCF was proud to be able to fund the Dance to Health project – with Oxfordshire at forefront of the great work going on to implement proactive, preventative solutions to our society’s pressing social problems. I was inspired to see how many different organisations and approaches were brought together at the conference, demonstrating the power of convening like-minded organisations. This type of collaboration is something we are very keen to champion more locally in Oxfordshire.”

Find out about other projects we have helped incubate – read our case studies