Instructor Janet Anderson leads a drumming class at Total Woman Gym and Day Spa in Placentia, California.

Story highlights

Drums Alive combines aerobic movements with the beat and rhythm of drums

A one-hour class offers a fast-paced workout that can burn up to 400 calories

Research: Playing a musical instrument reverses elements of human stress at the gene level

CNN  — 

A fitness phenomenon gaining popularity at gyms and senior centers across the country lets participants exercise to the beat of their own drums – literally.

Drums Alive classes combine traditional aerobic movements with the powerful beat and rhythm of drums. Instead of beating on a drum, however, people whack a large exercise ball with a pair of drumsticks, unleashing their inner rock stars.

The beauty of Drums Alive is that anyone can do it, regardless of age, fitness level or physical limitations, and drumming in a group fosters a sense of community, proponents say.

“We’ve never had anybody who’s gone to the class who hasn’t fallen in love with it,” said Shawn Bannon, a Baltimore group fitness instructor and master instructor in Drums Alive. “It’s been competing with Zumba (a dance-based workout), but people are finding that it’s much easier to do than Zumba. And for seniors, a lot of this involves dance moves that they already know.”

While drumming is an ancient form of expression, Drums Alive is only getting started in the United States, having been introduced here less than a decade ago. Founder Carrie Ekins, who is based in Germany, began drumming on boxes after suffering a hip injury. She quickly found that drumming made her feel better physically and mentally. She contends that drumming has biological benefits and can relieve stress and improve moods.

A one-hour class offers a fast-paced workout that can burn up to 400 calories. As in any other group fitness class, an instructor offers direction, telling people when to pound on their exercise balls, when to click their sticks and when to drum on a neighbor’s ball as up-tempo music – much of which can be traced to specific cultures – blares. And while pounding or clicking the drumsticks, participants sometimes dance around the balls, or do squats and lunges. The movements engage the core and can leave participants drenched in sweat.

Pam Chilson, 65, of Yorba Linda, California, said she always looks forward to drumming at Total Woman Gym & Day Spa in Placentia, where classes draw women of all ages.

“It’s my favorite. I think it’s because I can lose myself in it,” she said.

Maureen Jorio, 78, has been taking a Drums Alive class from Bannon for about a year at the Ateaze Senior Center in Baltimore, where some senior citizens sit in chairs or wheelchairs while taking the class.

“It’s so invigorating. We don’t stop for the entire hour,” Jorio said. “It makes you feel good, and you feel younger.”

Bannon also teaches a class at the St. Peter’s Adult Learning Center, which provides services to adults with developmental disabilities. He said he has seen some people transform while in the class.

“We find that it releases a lot of aggression issues,” he said. “They love to drum. Many of them feel very empowered with the drumsticks and drumming on the balls. They are very engaged, very focus-driven. It’s one of the few activities that the center has found that really does focus their attention.”

Ping Ho, founding director of UCLArts and Healing in Los Angeles, said exercise is a powerful panacea. Drumming doesn’t have to be done on a drum and it’s accessible because it doesn’t require any experience or skill, she said.

“We’ve seen drumming programs done very successfully with household objects, with desks and in this case huge gym balls,” she said. “A lot of people are intimidated by movement that they don’t think they can do; anybody can beat on a ball. The ball is soft, everyone is doing it together. It’s just very ideal for an older adult community, particularly one that is limited in what they can do. It gets them to move, which they desperately need.”

Ho and her team at UCLA have studied the benefits of group drumming. Ho is one of the co-developers of a program called Beat the Odds, which integrates activities from contemporary drum circles and group counseling to teach a litany of skills to school-age children, including focusing and listening, team building, leadership and managing anger and stress.

UCLA researchers have found that Beat the Odds can improve behavior problems, anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity issues, depression and post-traumatic stress.

For example, in a session on positive behavior, students simultaneously speak and beat the affirmation, “I am responsible, I do the right thing.” By mixing drumming with positive messages, the messages enter into the unconscious and can help to guide a person’s decisions and choices, according to the researchers.

In a session on expressing feelings and managing anger, students learned a spoken “calm down mantra” and then expressed their feelings on the drums.

“Our research does provide another piece of evidence that children benefit from drumming in a wide spectrum of ways,” Ho said. “The reason this is potentially an important tool is that children express their stress in a wide range of ways. If there is a programlike drumming that could help a broad range of children improve their behavior, then that’s pretty powerful.”

Beat the Odds, which is being used in schools in Los Angeles and elsewhere, can be easily adapted to any population, including teens, families and older adults.

The program is modeled on research conducted by Dr. Barry Bittman, a neurologist who studies the effects of recreational music to improve moods, reduce employee turnover and diminish the impact of stress on psychological, biological and genomic levels.

Bittman co-developed a group drumming protocol called HealthRhythms, which significantly increased the disease-fighting activity of circulating white blood cells (natural killer cells) that seek out and destroy cancer cells and virally infected cells.

“I believe there is potential,” Bittman, CEO of the Yamaha Music and Wellness Institute in Meadville, Pennsylvania, said of Drums Alive. “I believe that engaging a person – and in this case we’re talking about seniors – in activities that foster cardiovascular exercise and recreational music making has great potential to improve quality of life.”

Bittman and other researchers also found that playing a musical instrument reverses elements of the human stress response at the gene level. The scientists found that people participating in their first group keyboard lesson had a greater level of stress reduction than those who just relaxed and read newspapers and magazines.

Jen Dagati, licensed partner of Drums Alive in the United States and Canada, said she has felt a difference since she started drumming. She said drumming clears the head and improves balance and coordination.

“One hour later, you are feeling fabulous. You feel like a rock star. It’s challenging, it’s exhilarating and you just have a euphoric feeling when you are done drumming. It’s something everyone can do,” Dagati said.

Dagati was born without her right hand but found a way to drum by wearing a glove she designed.

Dagati has taught the class to a wide variety of people, including senior citizens with Alzheimer’s, where she plays the music of their era. She recalled a session where participants drummed to Glenn Miller music.

“The light that came on in each individual there was amazing,” she said. “It brings them back. Even if it’s only for a few minutes, they are back and they can remember. It’s just beautiful.”