Do you have two left feet or shy away from hitting the dance floor at weddings? It might be time to invest in some dance lessons. According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, not only will you likely have more fun at parties, but you’ll also be giving your brain a boost. Put on your blue suede shoes: the benefits of dancing are real.
Why is Dancing So Good for You?
The study looked at 174 healthy people in their 60s and 70s who showed no sign of cognitive impairment. Some of the participants exercised every now and then, but the majority were sedentary. (1) The group, which included both men and women, were given tests that examined their mental capacities and aerobic fitness. Then, the real fun began.
The participants were randomly assigned to different groups: brisk walking; stretching and balancing training; and country dancing, with increasingly advanced choreography. Each group meet three times a week for an hour.
After six months, the participants returned to the lab and took the same tests they were initially given, and the results were surprising.
As we age, our white matter begins declining. White matter is essentially cell connectors that transmit messages from neurons and back and forth between different parts of the brain. As we age, the speed at which white matter communicates begins to slow down. Messages which were once sent at rapid speed are now slower and clunkier.
Though scientists have long known that aging contributes to our white matter deterioration, it’s remained unclear as to whether there’s anything we can do to slow down or even reverse white matter decline, which makes this study especially exciting.
The oldest study participants and those who’d been sedentary before starting their regimens continued to see a white matter decline. But the group who’d learned how to country dance actually saw improvement in their brain’s white matter when compared to just six months earlier. In these individuals, the white matter in the part of the brain that’s involved with processing speed and memory was denser.
Because all of the groups performed better on their tests after the six months, scientists think there might be a time lag between when white matter begins improving and when it’s demonstrated in a person’s cognitive performance. It did show, however, that dancing can actually change the brain’s biochemistry. Learning and remembering new steps, adapting to different partners’ dance styles and socializing with others is believed to be part of the reason why dancing had such a positive effect on the participants’ brains.
This isn’t the first time that the benefits of dancing on the brain have been extolled, however. If you want to stay young at heart and mind, dancing is the way to go.
4 Benefits of Dancing
1. Give physical health a boost
Dancing regularly can improve your overall physical activity, even when you’re not on the dance floor. One study followed 54 Spanish-speaking adults ages 65–74 for four months. (2) The group took dance classes twice a week at a variety of places, including parks and senior citizen centers. The researchers built on basic steps to more complex choreography, to avoid overwhelming the participants, and tested their physical ability before and after the study.
Dance participants went from completing a 400-meter walk in over 7 minutes to 6.5 minutes. Even more excitingly, the physical activity they did in their own time increased from 650 minutes, or 10.8 hours, to almost 818 minutes, or 13.6 hours. Participants weren’t only dancing, they were taking on more physical activity.
Increased physical activity means huge gains for your health. The benefits of exercise range from lowering your risk of disease like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, sleeping better and being more energized.
2. Get more brains and balance
A study out of McGill University in Canada discovered that learning the steps necessary to tango actually improved brainpower and balance. Their study followed seniors who had experienced a fall within the last year and were scared of falling again, but were otherwise healthy. Half of the 30 seniors were sent to a walking group, while the others participated in tango lessons.
After meeting for two hours twice a week over 10 weeks, the tango dancers had better balance, motor coordination and posture than their walking counterparts. They were also better able to process complex mental tasks while doing other things like walking or standing on one foot. (3)
3. Improve Parkinson’s disease
But that’s not the only thing the tango is good for. The sultry dance also helps Parkinson’s patients with their motor skills. (4) Individuals with Parkinson’s struggle with walking and turning when walking. But a 2014 study, one of the longest-duration examinations of exercise’s effects on Parkinson’s disease, found that tango dancing took a positive toll on patients.
Over two years, those individuals who’d taken a tango class twice a week for an hour over two years improved their “motor and nonmotor symptom severity, performance on activities of daily living and balance.” The control group, which didn’t participate in tango lessons, saw some of these same measures decline over the two years.
4. Increase brainpower
If you’re suffering from metabolic syndrome, putting on your dancing shoes is good for your brain. Metabolic syndrome is a disorder that involves a combination of at least three unpleasant health issues: obesity, high triglyceride levels, high blood sugar, high blood pressure or low HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol. One of the syndrome’s side effects is an increased risk in cognitive impairment.
One study of 38 Korean elderly Korean patients found that, over six months of learning the cha cha twice a week, the dancers improved their verbal fluency, word list recognition and word list delayed recall. (5) Not only did dancing boost their cognitive performance, but the dancers had fun socializing and getting excited about their lessons. Although it didn’t change the patients’ physical symptoms, dancing could be used as a “gateway drug” for other forms of fun exercise with increased intensity.
Dancing is a pretty safe exercise but if you’re on medication, it’s wise to consult with your doctor before beginning a dance exercise program. Otherwise, however, your biggest problem might be trying to decide what type of dance to engage in!
Choosing a group class is your best option; you’ll reap the benefits of socializing while getting a brain boost. Making friends in class can also hold you accountable to regularly attending sessions.
- Dancing is an effective way to improve your cognitive function and physical health easily.
- A recent study found that dancing regularly can actually increase the white matter in our brains that declines as we age.
- Dancing also improves brainpower and balance.
- For Parkinson’s disease patients, dancing is a natural way to increase both motor and nonmotor symptoms.
- Let’s dance!
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