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Give Latin Dancing a Try

The rhythms get the heart beating, and learning the steps with a partner can pay social and mental benefits


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Let’s face it: Walking can get boring, and some fitness classes are more work than fun. But salsa dancing?

For some Chicago-area adults, Latin dance classes appear to be just the ticket to improved fitness. And preliminary research suggests that learning those salsa moves (along with the merengue, bachata and cha-cha) may produce cognitive benefits as well.

When it comes to exercising for body and brain health, “the key is doing what you like to do,” says David X. Marquez, an associate professor of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

In focus groups, Spanish-speaking adults told Marquez and his colleagues that they enjoyed dancing, but had too few opportunities to do it.

So the researchers invited 54 of them, all of them 55 or older, to attend either twice-a-week dance classes or health education sessions. After four months, the dancers showed greater improvements in physical fitness, Marquez reported at a meeting of the American Heart Association.

And in preliminary unpublished findings, the dancers also outshone their peers on one cognitive test, Marquez says. The test involved listening to a short story and then repeating the details immediately and a few minutes later. The dancers were able to remember more details, Marquez says.

If dancing has brain-boosting powers, it might be because it is good cardiovascular exercise. After all, what’s good for the heart is generally good for the brain. But dancing might do even more, Marquez says.

“Dancing gets your heart rate up, just like walking,” he says. “But dancing also has a social component, and we know that can be important.  Music might also enhance the effects. Another key may be that you are challenging your brain and having to remember all those dance steps. You also are dancing with a partner and having to be aware of what they are doing.”

Still to come: results from a larger study, including more than 300 people, and findings from a separate pilot study in which a modified dance program was offered to people with mild cognitive impairment.

Those eager to give Latin dancing a try can look for lessons offered by community centers and dance clubs.

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