Health Benefits of Juggling
Juggling is a fascinating skill, and it is becoming clear from research that tossing those brightly coloured balls and sticks into the air in a magical cascade is much more than just an impressive party trick. With its emphasis on coordination, constant small movement and micro-corrections, as well as the relaxed but intense and almost meditative focus required, juggling is a fun and fast route out of anxiety, and may be a gateway to better thinking skills, confidence and self-esteem for people of all ages – from the very young to the very old, and may prove to be a real mental and physical health boon.
Age is no Barrier to Juggling
Old dogs can't learn new tricks? Experience and scientific research showed otherwise when people whose ages ranged from 6 to 89 years old were taught to juggle for the first time over a 6-day period.
The older people in the study showed no less improvement in their juggling skills than the younger groups, and their juggling performance was comparable to those who were in the age ranges 10-14 and 30-59.
So what are the Health Benefits?
Coordination, Muscle Tone and Mental Acuity
Some health benefits from juggling are easy to see. The more we practice skills that require coordination, the more coordinated we become – balance, muscle tone and mental acuity are all improved by use, and juggling requires a little of all of these.
Anxiety Reduction – State, Trait and Tension Anxiety
'State' and 'Trait' anxiety is lower in those who juggle regularly. 'State' anxiety is what we feel in response to a stressful or frightening situation or event, and in people who juggle, that emotional response is closer to a comfortable baseline – that is, jugglers cope and deal with stress more effectively.
'Trait' anxiety is our own personal baseline in any situation – our day-to-day stress level and ability to cope in our ordinary lives. It has been linked with 'personality' – part of our individuality, but perhaps this is a misleading view since anxiety and stress levels can be both learned and unlearned, and from a six-month study of women with anxiety disorders, the group who learned and practiced juggling regularly had significantly lower levels of daily stress than the control group who did not.
'Tension' anxiety – the kind that makes us tense our muscles as if in readiness for 'fight-or-flight' – was also significantly reduced in the juggling group.
Vitality and vigour – feelings of energy and wellbeing – were also much more positive in the juggling group. These feelings are difficult to define in absolute terms, but people who report high feelings of vitality and vigour also show evidence of being able to overcome both major and minor diseases more easily.
Feelings of depression and hostility were reduced in the juggling group too, and all of these improvements add up to a more relaxed and healthy life – in return for just a few minutes a day practicing a fun and colourful activity.
Juggling and Improved Thinking!
'Executive mental functions' are things like problem solving, visual planning, and the ability to imagine and abstract ideas and solutions. Our levels of executive function can affect our attention, focus and concentration, and our day-to-day performance and memory.
In one study on juggling – which is an astonishing and ground-breaking finding, I think – children with spina bifida were given two months of juggling training.
Spina bifida is a condition where the vertebrae (the backbones) around the spinal cord are not fully formed at birth, which can cause both physical disability and difficulties with some (or, depending on severity, many) of the executive functions of the brain.
The children with spina bifida who were given juggling lessons showed a marked improvement in their reaction time when solving a problem involving 'mental rotation' – that is, being shown a picture of a complex shape and asked to imagine it in a different position – in effect, mentally rotating it – and then describe where a certain point on the shape would be after it was rotated. A simple example is below.
Which of these shapes can be rotated so that they are the same?
The ability to think clearly and solve problems is frustrating when we feel as though we just can't do it, and conversely, when we do come up with the answer to a problem – whether it's an abstract one like the example above, or whether it's something more practical – we get a small boost of confidence, and the better we get at solving all those little problems, the more confident – and happy – we feel.
Do you need to be GOOD at Juggling to get these Health Benefits?
No!! The one thing that stands out in the research is that it is simply practising regularly that brings about improvements in health and wellbeing. You may take months to get past the stage of dropping the balls on the first round of a 3-ball cascade, but your coordination will be improving in small ways, and you will be spending just a few minutes every day in a state of relaxed focus that is the basis of so many anti-stress techniques.
So don't worry about whether you're ever going to be able to join the circus; just grab those small coloured sandbags and toss them up into the air – it'll come to you with practice.
How do you learn to Juggle – Online Lessons and Local Juggling Groups
If you live in a city, you probably have a local juggling group you can join – and most are happy for absolute beginners to join: just type the name of your hometown and 'juggling group' into Google, or ask at your local library, which often holds lists of local activity groups.
But if you can't find anything close to where you live, don't despair – there are lots of resources online where you can discover the basic moves and then build on them. Here are a few to get you started:
Jason Garfield is a master of juggling and is a serious, professional juggler. Some poor souls don't 'get' his sense of humour, but he has made one of the best and simplest videos I've seen on how to learn to juggle three balls – starting with the easiest thing in the world – throwing a single ball from one hand to the other. *Ahem. I still kept dropping it even with that so-called easy task*
Jason Garfield's Juggling Tutorial
Garfield has a page on his website that has a short (6 minutes or so) 'how to juggle' video. Get your juggling balls out and hide the breakables – it's not as easy as it looks!
World Juggling Federation and the International Jugglers' Association
Now throw those darn balls away. And then catch them again. Rinse and repeat.
Links to Research Abstracts
- The influence of juggling on mental rotation perf... [Brain Cogn. 2012] - PubMed - NCBI
Children with spina bifida and the positive effects of juggling
- Effect of juggling therapy on anxiety disor... [Biopsychosoc Med. 2007] - PubMed - NCBI
Improvement in the symptoms of women diagnosed with anxiety disorders after learning and regular practice of Juggling
- Motor plasticity in a juggling task in older adul... [Age Ageing. 2006] - PubMed - NCBI
Older adults showed the same improvements in juggling ability when taking lessons as children and younger adults.