For centuries, dance has been a form of expression, celebration, part of rituals, and a way to literally shake the stress of the day away. Whether you took dance lessons growing up or you have two left feet, there’s no denying that letting loose and dancing the night away feels good.
Dance is a beautiful form of expression, and can be used to share cultures and stories. Dance also brings people together, as shimmying and shaking to good music is the same in every language. Beyond connecting with others through dance, the art form also has plenty of benefits for your health. While dance has been making a name for itself in the physical activity world with classes like Zumba, Barre, and DanceFit, the mental benefits are just beginning to take centerstage. Studies are now showing that dance may just be the number one activity for protecting and strengthening your brain.
Dancing and Your Brain
With the aging population of North America, research is constantly being done on the aging brain and how to combat, prevent, and treat age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. While it has been known for quite some time that exercise has a powerful impact on brain health, scientists have discovered that dance, with its infectious music, coordinated movements, and required stamina, may be the best type of exercise out there for your brain for several reasons.
1. Constant Learning
Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases did a study where she compared various groups of elderly people who were given specific exercise routines for 18 months. While some groups were assigned endurance and flexibility training such as Nordic walking or cycling, one group was given weekly dance lessons. Each week, they were challenged with something new, whether it was a new genre of dance, a new step, or a new routine. While all groups experienced an increase in the hippocampus center of the brain, an area particularly vulnerable to age-related decline and diseases, the dance group experienced a noticeable difference. (1)
“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.” Dr. Rehfeld explained. (1)
2. Coordination and Balance
For the best of us, balance and coordination can be difficult. As we age, it becomes even more so. The challenge with aging is that as you become increasingly likely to become dizzy, lose your balance, and fall, you are also more likely to experience a serious injury as a result. (1, 2, 3, 4) Dancing trains and improves all of those areas:
Spins, turns, quick side-to-side and up and down movements train the areas of the brain and inner ear to deal with those quick changes and sharp movements. This will make help you become less dizzy from every day movements, such as going up the stairs or getting up and out of a chair. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Very few dance moves occur with two feet planted firmly on the ground. Dancing helps to strengthen a variety of muscles in your feet, legs, and hips, as well as your core, so that if you do lose your balance, you are more likely to catch yourself. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Much of what is involved in learning a new dance is in coordination and muscle memory. The more you dance and practice routines, the more you nurture and develop the brain-muscle connection and neurons. (1, 2, 3, 4)
3. Improved Memory
Nearly everyone, if given the choice would like to have better memory, but this is especially pertinent for older adults. Not only is are a decreased ability to remember and recall names, dates, places, and facts a part of regular aging, but it can also be a slippery slope to Alzheimer’s and Dementia. With dancing, you are connecting the mental (learning new steps and the order that they come in) with the physical (actually executing the routine). This results in memory improvement and strengthened neuronal connections in the brain. (1, 2, 3, 4)
4. Music Stimulates Brain Activity
For some time now, scientists and researchers who study neurodegenerative diseases have been aware of the profound impact that music has on the brain, especially for those suffering from cognitive decline. The power of dance becomes two-fold, with the music stimulating the reward centers of the brain in combination with the sensory and motor circuits that are activated when you start dancing. (1, 2, 3, 4)
Studies done on Parkinson’s disease found that those who practiced and learned dance had improved balance and fell less, experienced a slower rate of motor control decline and an overall slower progression of the disease. (4)
5. Dancing Makes You Happy
Go to any bar, club, dance class, wedding, or concert, and you will be hard-pressed to find people who aren’t laughing and smiling as they move their bodies along with the music. The effects of being positive and happy on longevity and health are powerful, due to the following reasons:
It’s physical activity. Dancing gets you moving. Whatever your dancing style is, chances are you become sweaty and somewhat breathless before the end of the first song. This form of exercise is fantastic for your heart, lungs, muscles, and joints. It’s a fun way to burn a ton of calories and get your ‘steps’ in for the day. (1, 2, 3, 4)
It helps you shed stress. Stress is one of the number one causes of almost every disease and illness we face today, and it’s putting a serious strain on our mental and physical health. It’s hard to focus on your stressful day at work, recent breakup, or whether or not your dog loves you or your significant other more when your breaking it down on the dance floor. Dancing is a way to let loose and act a little (or a lot!) silly for a few hours. As Taylor Swift says, dancing literally allows you to shake it off. (1, 2, 3, 4)
It allows you to connect with others. Whether it’s you and your husband busting a move together on your twenty-fifth wedding anniversary or you’re out dancing with a complete stranger, dancing provides a physical connection to people that no other activity can. For older adults, isolation and lack of contact with others is a big contributing factor to the onset of disease, health problems, and cognitive decline. So the next time you’re at a wedding, grab the elderly man or woman sitting by themselves and ask them to dance, you’ll be helping their health and your own. (1, 2, 3, 4)
The Bottom Line
Dancing has physical, mental, and emotional benefits for everyone, but especially for those entering or already in their later years. Whether you’re a dancing fool or so uncoordinated that you step on your own toes, get out there and let the music make you lose control. Your brain will thank you.
(1) Staff, S. X. (2017, August 25). Dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Retrieved September 08, 2017, from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-08-reverse-aging-brain.html
(2) Kattenstroth, J., Kolankowska, I., Kalisch, T., & Dinse, H. R. (2010). Superior Sensory, Motor, and Cognitive Performance in Elderly Individuals with Multi-Year Dancing Activities. Retrieved September 08, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917240/
(3) Bergland, C. (2013, October 01). Why Is Dancing So Good for Your Brain? Retrieved September 08, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201310/why-is-dancing-so-good-your-brain
(4) Dancing and the Brain. (n.d.). Retrieved September 08, 2017, from http://neuro.hms.harvard.edu/harvard-mahoney-neuroscience-institute/brain-newsletter/and-brain-series/dancing-and-brain