For some, the prospect of walking into a gym to work out is akin to getting a root canal: You know you need to do it, but it’s not going to be fun, and there will be pain. If this sounds familiar, we’d like to offer an alternative to the repetitive grind of regular workouts: dancing. Dancing is just as beneficial as other forms of physical activity like jogging or biking, but it also has the added benefit of being mentally and emotionally stimulating, socially engaging, and it’s fun.
The Physical Benefits of Dancing:
Physical inactivity can be more common among people in the 55+ age group, particularly due to pre-existing medical conditions or limitations, time constraints, and our generally sedentary culture. Dance, however, is one form of physical activity that can be easily adjusted to fit any age, physical limitation or societal constraint, and provides numerous health benefits. Cross-sectional studies have shown that older adults who dance on a regular basis have greater flexibility, postural stability, balance, physical reaction time, and cognitive performance than older adults who don’t dance. Here are a few ways dancing can help with overall physical health:
Increased muscular strength and endurance, balance, and flexibility:
Dancing is a total-body workout, requiring the engagement of different muscle groups all at once. Because it incorporates so many different parts of the body, dance is one of the best exercises for improving overall fitness. In one study, participants aged 52 to 87 years old engaged in several weeks of different styles of dance classes to measure functional fitness. Eighty-two percent of participants showed positive changes in muscular strength and endurance, 89% had better balance, and 60% showed an increase in flexibility. A ton of studies show similar results, which has led to many countries proposing programs that use dance for the development and improvement of balance and to prevent falls in senior populations.
Better cardiovascular health:
In addition to improving muscle strength, dancing is an excellent cardiovascular workout on par with jogging or biking. Long-term participation in moderate-intensity dance classes has been linked with better overall systemic oxygenation and cardiorespiratory fitness, as well as a reduction of mortality in those with cardiovascular disease. Some studies even indicate that some forms of dance are capable of lowering blood pressure. And, of course, cardio workouts (such as dancing) tend to burn a lot of calories, which can lead to better overall body composition.
Improved musculoskeletal fitness:
Dance movements are multi-directional and highly varied, especially compared to the typical straightforward motion on treadmills, ellipticals, and other cardiovascular machines. This benefits joint mobility — something we lose as we get older — which is key to maintaining a normal range of motion. And, because dance movements are so varied and weight-bearing, our bodies start to prioritize maintaining and even improving bone density. Several studies done on pre-osteoporitic populations have shown that dancing causes an improvement in bone density after a matter of months.
The Mental Benefits of Dancing:
Unlike some other forms of exercise, dance is mentally stimulating. It requires focus on coordination, learning and memorizing movement patterns, and adherence to rhythm, making it necessary to have a constant mind-body connection. One study writes: “Neurobiological markers tested post dance classes indicate that the brain is positively affected through exhibiting physical changes. These include an increase in hippocampus size, gray matter volume, brain-derived neurotrophic factor and enhanced white matter integrity, all of which suggest better neuroplasticity in dancers.” In other words, dance helps maintain and improve our mental abilities, and it could have a protective effect against age-related cognitive decline.
Better Mental Health:
Dance is associated with the release of neurotransmitters and neuropeptides such as serotonin and endorphins, the feel-good hormones. As such, studies highlight that dance is able to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve your mood.
Dance therapy is a popular method of addressing middle-age malaise, because it includes an aesthetic form of artistic expression as well as physical activity. The music, movement patterns, and mental engagement involved in dance often evoke emotions that would rarely occur in a regular gym workout, and this can be very positive. Some studies show that people who participate in dance and dance therapies often have reduced levels of anger and depression over time (and who doesn’t need that?)
Increased social activity:
Loneliness is a major complaint among people as they age, and can have a debilitating effect on mental health. Dance classes are a great place for meeting new people and making new friends that encourage social well-being and participating in healthier activities. This in turn is linked to improved motivation, reduced anxiety, and less depression. Overall life satisfaction reportedly increases through practicing dance, as does one’s confidence, connection to self, and ability to socialize.
How to Start Dancing for Exercise:
The best exercise program is one that you will do regularly because you enjoy it, so start by figuring out which type of dance most interests you. If the idea of jumping into a class without any dance background is too intimidating, you can try to learn at home. Youtube has millions of instructional dance videos that you can try on your own, and you can search by the style of dance you’re most drawn to.
That said, don’t let dance classes intimidate you too much, because then you’d miss out on the beneficial social aspect. Many community centers provide group dance classes, as well as private gyms and franchises that specialize in dance instruction. So go ahead, let the rhythm move you!