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Hitting the dance floor isn’t just fun — you might whirl your way to better balance and a better mind
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by Amanda McCracken
Updated Sep 28, 2022
Exercise can benefit an aging brain. It can improve cognition and delay dementia, increase attention and focus, and reduce depression, research suggests. But if you’d rather shake your booty than run a marathon, get excited. Dancing offers enormous benefits for your body and brain, from relieving stress to increasing social connections and reducing loneliness, according to a report on music from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH).
“Moving to music requires coordination of varied neural activities, involving the brain’s reward center, along with sensory and motor circuits,” the report states. “All that synchronizing enriches the experience and increases the pleasure. This coupling not only feels good but is good — for the brain.”
The type of dance you choose may be irrelevant. Line dancing may protect brain tissue, and ballroom dancing may improve spatial analysis (the part of the brain focused on navigation and remembering layouts), studies show. Latin dances, such as the salsa and merengue, may boost visual recognition and decision-making, among other skills, the GCBH report states. And whether it’s the tango or the twist, dance provides both mental and social stimulation, which may enhance memory. In a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study, researchers followed a group of healthy seniors (ages 60 to 79) for six months in four different classes: dance, walking, walking and nutrition, and stretching and toning. Only those in the dance class exhibited improvement in the brain’s fornix, a collection of nerve fibers that play an important role in memory.
Dancing may even reduce the risk of dementia, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found, and it can provide benefits that other forms of exercise don’t, such as improving balance. Unlike other types of workouts and stretching routines, dance involves constantly changing rhythms, speeds, steps and arm patterns. You’re not using the same repetitive motion, as with exercises like cycling, swimming and walking. In a recent 18-month study out of Germany, one group of seniors did endurance exercises and another group danced. Both groups showed improvement in the hippocampus region of the brain (a key area for memory and cognition), but the dancers also improved their balance.
Lisa Morgan, an instructor of dance pedagogy at Colorado State University, has witnessed this firsthand while teaching her Moving Through Parkinson’s class. Dance classes not only offer the psychosocial benefits of touch, community and creative expression, but patterned movements paired with live music challenge dancers’ sense of timing and space, which can specifically improve balance for some people, Morgan says. She also develops movement patterns based on familiar experiences, such as living in a Colorado environment. “We might work on spatial awareness, transfer of weight and fall prevention by imagining we are birds expanding our wingspans, soaring through a canyon and landing with solid footing,” she explains. Mental imagery during dance, or meditative movement like the traditional Chinese practice of Qigong, improves postural and environmental awareness, which may decrease the risk of falling among seniors, several studies show.
Go to Music and Brain Health to learn more about how music can trigger memories, lift your mood and more.
Research also reveals that dance can reduce stress. Martha Eddy, author of Mindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action and founder of the nonprofit organization Moving for Life, which uses dance exercise classes to address issues related to cancer and aging, argues that dance allows for a wider range of emotional expression than a spin class does. “We can calm anxiety down with cycling, but with dance you have more capacity to move out of depression,” she says. “You might let go of anger for a brief moment and move into pleasure.”
• "Physical exercise improves quality of life, depressive symptoms, and cognition across chronic brain disorders: a transdiagnostic systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials," Journal of Neurology, August 2019. This review of 122 studies found evidence that exercise is effective at reducing symptoms of depression and can help improve memory and executive functioning. Read the full study.
• "The Roles of Exercise and Yoga in Ameliorating Depression as a Risk Factor for Cognitive Decline," Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, December 2016. This scientific paper explores the research behind how exercise can help ease depression and potentially prevent dementia. Read the full article.
• "White Matter Integrity Declined Over 6-Months, but Dance Intervention Improved Integrity of the Fornix of Older Adults," Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, March 2017. In this study, 247 seniors were randomly assigned to one of four groups: dance classes, walking, walking and nutrition, or strength and balance sessions (active control). All study participants underwent brain imaging at the beginning of the study and again after six months to measure the white matter in their brains. The researchers found that those who did dance classes had improvements in white matter in an area of the brain related to memory and processing speed. Read the full study.
• "Cognitive Benefits of Social Dancing and Walking in Old Age: The Dancing Mind Randomized Controlled Trial," Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, February 2016. In this eight-month study of 115 adults with a mean age of 69.5 years, participants were randomly assigned to either learn ballroom dancing or participate in a walking program either alone or with a social group. Researchers found that although ballroom dancing did not improve executive function more than walking, it did improve participants' spatial memory. Read the full study.
• "Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly," The New England Journal of Medicine, June 2003. This study followed 469 subjects older than 75 for five years; they did not have dementia when enrolling in the study. They received neuropsychological tests and were interviewed about the activities they participated in. Researchers found that leisure activities were associated with a reduced risk of dementia and that "dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia." As a population study, it shows a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.
• "Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors," Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, June 2017. In this 18-month study, 14 seniors were randomly assigned to participate in a dance group, and 12 seniors were randomly assigned to a fitness group. All received cognitive and physical screening as well as brain scans. Researchers found that while both groups increased their hippocampal volume, only the dance group improved their balance. Study limitations include the small sample size and the lack of an inactive control group. Read the full study.
• "Specific dance movement therapy interventions — Which are successful? An intervention and correlation study." The Arts in Psychotherapy, November 2014. In this study, researchers gave questionnaires to 11 dance therapists to assess how dance movement therapy (DMT) can improve quality of life. The study includes an examination of how DMT incorporates mental imagery and metaphors and the research behind how DMT can help improve coordination and reduce the risk of falls in older adults. Read a summary of the study. (Fee required to access full article.)
• "Qigong and Tai Chi as Therapeutic Exercise: Survey of Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses Addressing Physical Health Conditions," Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, September 2019. This review of 41 studies found evidence that qigong can be an effective intervention for improving balance and preventing falls. Read a summary of the study.
• "Effects of a Short-Term Dance Movement Therapy Program on Symptoms and Stress in Patients With Breast Cancer Undergoing Radiotherapy: A Randomized, Controlled, Single-Blind Trial," Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, May 2016. In this study of 139 breast cancer patients awaiting radiotherapy, those who were randomly assigned to participate in six 1.5-hour dance movement therapy sessions reported feeling significantly less stressed. Study limitations include its short duration and the fact that it relied on participants' own reporting of their stress levels. Read the full study.
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