Eighty-year-old Ricardo Muti just extended his contract to conduct the Chicago Symphony to 2023 (Chicago Tribune, September 23, 2021). Pablo Casals, Nadia Boulanger, Arturo Toscanini, Arthur Rubinstein, Mehli Mehta and Paul Paray all conducted major orchestras into their nineties, and Walter Demrosch, Arthur Fiedler, Serge Kousevitsky, Leopold Stokowski, Sir Thomas Beecham and Eugene Ormandy conducted into their eighties. At age 99, Edward Simons conducted an orchestra in suburban New York to break the world record for oldest conductor of a major orchestra that had been held by Spain’s Juan Garcés Queralt. Simons died in 2018 at age 101.
The constant exercise involved in the act of conducting may be a strong part of the reason for these conductors’ long lives. Any kind of vigorous exercise strengthens your heart and helps to prolong your life, and continuing to exercise as you grow older is unquestionably associated with extending life (Int J Clin Pract, Feb 2009;63(2):303-20; Biogerontology, Mar 2, 2016;17:567–580). Your heart is a muscle, and to strengthen any muscle, you have to exercise it against increasing resistance. When you swing your arms, your arm muscles contract and squeeze the veins near them to pump extra blood toward the heart. When your arm muscles relax, they allow blood to fill the veins near them. This alternate contracting and relaxing of the arm muscles pumps extra blood toward the heart (J Appl Physiol, Aug 2004;97(2):739-47). Your heart then must contract against a greater amount of blood inside its chambers, so it does this with a faster beat and with more force, and this makes the heart muscle stronger (Physiol Rev, Apr 2015;95(2): 549–601). .
Exercising Your Arms vs Your Legs
Your heart is strengthened by increased circulation of blood. Your arm muscles and the blood vessels in your arms are much smaller than the muscles and blood vessels in your legs, so you are unlikely to get as much heart fitness from exercise that uses primarily your arms, compared to exercise that uses primarily your legs. Your heart has to work two and a half times as long and hard to pump the same amount of blood through your arms as it does to through your legs.
Conducting an orchestra is one of the few vigorous activities I can think of that use the arms almost exclusively, but many sports stress both the arms and the legs: cross country skiing, rowing, swimming, water aerobics, walking with ski poles, and so forth. Cycling, running and ordinary walking use primarily the legs with very little stress on the upper body muscles.
Do Orchestra Conductors Really Live Longer?
Orchestra conductors and harpists appear to live longer than other musicians and they both use their arms more than most other musicians (Advances in Gerontology, Nov 5, 2014;4(4):283–289). A review of the mean age of death of 8755 musicians (7371 men and 1404 women) shows that the longest-lived males were conductors (71.1 years), cellists (70.0 years) and violinists (70.0). Among female musicians, those with the longest lives were harpists (80.9 years), pianists (79.9 years) and conductors (79.6 years). The shortest life spans were for rock musicians (45 years), who often die young from drug use.
Still, there is no guarantee that conducting will result in a long life. I found reports of 14 conductors who died at relatively young ages while they were conducting: Jesús Arámbarri (1902–1960), Eduard van Beinum (1901–1959), Narcisse Girard (1797–1860), Joseph Keilberth (1908–1968), and Fritz Lehmann (1904–1956).
Orchestra conductors are socially and physically different from most members of society. They tend to be richer and more educated, and their work does not expose them to industrial hazards (PLoS ONE, August 7, 2013;8(8):e71630). These factors are associated with a longer lifespan whether a person exercises or not. People with more years of education tend to live longer, possibly because they are more likely to follow the rules of a healthful anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
The odds are that you will never conduct a major orchestra, but just about everyone agrees that you should exercise as you grow older. You could turn on the radio, pick up a stick and wave your arms around, but you probably will not be willing to put in the huge number of hours spent on the job by professional conductors. If your favorite activity stresses primarily your leg muscles, such as walking, running, dancing or pedaling a bicycle, you may benefit from cross-training with another activity that involves stress on your arms, such as weight lifting, rowing or swimming.
A healthful lifestyle includes more than just exercising. It is also important to eat an anti-inflammatory diet and avoid overweight, alcohol and smoke.