UPDATED July 23, 2012: A new Health Tip published by MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health advocates that seniors “make exercise a social activity.” “Participate in a group dance class or a group fitness class,” the Health Tip recommends, among several other suggested forms of social exercise.
The new Health Tip, published on June 20, 2012, explains that “Social relationships are important, especially for seniors. Incorporating social activity into physical activity offers physical and emotional benefits.”
Experts increasingly advocate dancing as a form of exercise most beneficial to health, particularly for seniors.
Health Benefits of Dance
As explained by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), “Dancing can serve as a great form of aerobic exercise, providing cardiovascular conditioning which the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) reports can help lower your risk of coronary heart disease, decrease blood pressure, and also aid in weight management efforts,” as well as lowering your risks of diabetes, depression, decline in cognitive function, and cancer.
Strengthen Bones, Muscles, Coordination & Balance.
“Dancing is also a weight-bearing activity, which can improve bone density (and thereby reduce the risk of osteoporosis) as well as improve muscle strength, coordination and balance,” ACE states.
A scientific study, conducted by Joe Verghese, MD of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, concluded that “long-term social dancing may be associated with better balance and gait in older adults.” The results showed that cognitively normal older adults who were social dancers had better balance, longer stride, a more stable pattern of gait during walking (which included reduced stance time, increased swing time, and decreased double support time), when compared to a similar group of older adults who did not engage in dancing.
“In addition to the physiological benefits mentioned above, dancing has also been shown to provide an assortment of psychological benefits as well,” ACE points out. “Given the fact that dancing serves as an enjoyable and engaging form of physical activity, many individuals find that it helps to reduce stress and chronic fatigue, improve energy and mood, and increase self-esteem and confidence.”
More poetically, in an article entitled Let’s Dance to Health, AARP writes “Dancing can be magical and transforming. It can breathe new life into a tired soul; make a spirit soar; unleash locked-away creativity; unite generations and cultures; inspire new romances or rekindle old ones; trigger long-forgotten memories; and turn sadness into joy, if only during the dance.”
Maintain Memory & Brain Health and Stave Off Dementia.
“On a more physical level, dancing can give you a great mind-body workout,” the AARP article continues. “Researchers are learning that regular physical activity in general can help keep your body, including your brain, healthy as you age. Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals that encourage nerve cells to grow. And dancing that requires you to remember dance steps and sequences boosts brain power by improving memory skills.”
Research has shown that dancing can play an important role in successful aging, as well as improve memory, according to ACE.
A much cited scientific study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dancing several times a week is associated with a significantly lower risk of dementia.
The study, conducted by Joe Verghese, M.D. of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and colleagues, in fact, found that dancing was the only one of 11 measured physical activities that was associated with a significantly reduced risk of developing dementia. (The 11 measured physical activities included dancing, playing tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, participating in group exercises, playing team games such as bowling, walking for exercise, climbing more than two flights of stairs, doing housework, and babysitting.)
Moreover, the study found that, increasing one’s frequency of participation in dancing from once per week to several times per week reduced one’s risk of dementia by 76 percent! When compared to a similar increase of participation in the 10 other physical activities measured and a similar increase in frequency of participation in six cognitive activities (playing board games, reading, playing a musical instrument, doing crossword puzzles, writing, and participating in group discussions), the increase in dancing produced THE most dramatic reduction in risk of dementia of all the activities. See Table 2 of the study, presenting the findings on “Risk of Development of Dementia According to the Frequency of Participation in Individual Leisure Activities.”
Lose Weight & Maintain a Healthy Weight.
A 150-pound adult can burn about 150 calories doing 30 minutes of moderate social dancing, according to the AARP article.
“And when it comes to caloric burn, the numbers speak for themselves,” says the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “For rhythmic dances, such as the foxtrot or waltz, a 160-pound person will burn an estimated 130 calories in 30 minutes. For more intense styles of dance such as the salsa, the number of calories burned doubles to approximately 250 calories in 30 minutes, which is comparable to performing a light jog for the same duration,” according to ACE.
AARP provides the following list of some of the benefits of dancing:
- strengthen bones and muscles without hurting your joints
- tone your entire body
- improve your posture and balance, which can prevent falls
- increase your stamina and flexibility
- reduce stress and tension
- build confidence
- provide opportunities to meet people, and
- ward off illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, osteoporosis, and depression.”
“Whether it’s ballet or ballroom, clogging or jazz, dance is great for helping people of all ages and physical abilities get and stay in shape. There’s even chair dancing for people with physical limitations,” AARP points out.
Similar conclusions were reached in a study of Ballroom Dance as Therapy for the Elderly in Brazil, which was published in the American Journal of Dance Therapy. The study found five major categories of “therapeutic meaning” of ballroom dancing for the participants: “ballroom dancing is fun; it brings health benefits; it brings back good dancing memories; it allows participants to establish cultural connections to the larger Brazilian dancing culture; and it provides opportunities for socializing.”
Other experts, including many cited in a WebMD feature article, Dancing Your Way to Better Health, as well as others cited in a ScienceDaily feature article, Dance Your Way To Successful Aging, agree with and substantiate all of the advice given above, and advocate dancing as a form of exercise very beneficial to and promotive of good health.
As reported in the ScienceDaily article, Dr. Jonathan Skinner, a Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the School of History and Anthropology at Queen’s University, Belfast, conducted research which studied the effects of social dancing among older adults in Northern Ireland, Blackpool, England, and Sacramento, California.
The research revealed social, mental and physical benefits of social dancing for older people. Dr. Skinner’s research “suggests that dancing staves off illness, and even counteracts decline in ageing,” according to ScienceDaily.
“I have found that social dancing leads to a continued engagement with life – past, present, and future – and holds the promise for successful ageing,” Dr. Skinner told ScienceDaily. “It contributes to the longevity of the dancers, giving them something to enjoy and focus upon – to live for. It alleviates social isolation and quite literally helps take away the aches and pains associated with older age,” he said.
“In addition to this, … dancing brings people together across communities, creating solidarity, tolerance and understanding,” Dr. Skinner concluded.
How to Get Started Dancing
The American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends that you consult your doctor before beginning any exercise regime, including dancing, and then start out slowly. Here is further advice from ACE:
AARP also recommends you consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program, such as dancing. Then, “If your doctor hasn’t restricted your activity in any way, you’re ready to rock,” Rita Beckford, M.D., a family doctor and spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, told AARP.
“Dancing is a great activity for people age 50 and older because you can vary the level of physical exertion so easily,” Marian Simpson, a retired dance instructor and past president of the National Dance Association, told AARP.
“For instance, people just getting back into dance or physical activity can start out more slowly, then “step it up a notch” by adding things like dips and turns as they progress,” Ms. Simpson said. “The more energy you put into a dance, the more vigorous your workout will be.”
Although some dance forms are more rigorous than others – for instance, jazz as opposed to the waltz – all beginners’ classes should start you out gradually, AARP advises.
Ballroom dance, line dancing, and other kinds of social dance are most popular among people 50 and older, according to AARP. “That’s because they allow people to get together and interact socially, while getting some exercise and having fun at the same time. Dancers who have lost partners can come alone and meet new people, since many classes don’t require that you attend as a couple,” AARP says.
Here’s some further advice on getting started with dancing, from Colleen Dean, Program Coordinator for the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance and Program Manager of the National Dance Association:
“If you take a class, give it some time before deciding you don’t like it. Try going with a friend and keep with it for at least a month. You can find dance classes at a dance school, dance studio, health club, or community recreation center. Some YMCAs, churches, or synagogues offer group dance classes followed by a social hour.”
To find dancing opportunities in your area, to learn about ballroom dancing as a social activity or competitive sport, and to engage with others interested in dance, you may wish to join the local chapter of USA Dance in your area.
USA Dance is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting ballroom dancing as a recognized sport and a recreational activity, “educating the public on how ballroom dancing can greatly enhance the physical and mental well-being and health of its participants,” “promoting a healthy and productive interaction between dancers of all organizations,” “improving the quality and quantity ballroom dancing in the United States,” and “providing dancing opportunities to all Americans.”
Local USA Dance chapters “create dance opportunities for local citizens by organizing affordable social dances, dance lessons and workshops.” Most local chapters also publish a newsletter for members, with information about local and national dance activities, where to dance, tips on how to dance, and other news and information. You can join USA Dance and participate in a local chapter as a “Social Dancer” for annual dues of only $35.00 (adult competitive dancers pay dues of $70.00 per year).
The local newsletter, as well as American Dancer, a bi-monthly magazine published by the national organization of USA Dance, are provided to members (included in your annual dues).
To find a local chapter of USA Dance near you, see the list of chapters by state on the USA Dance website, and click on the chapter nearest you.
See related HelpingYouCare™ reports on:
For more information on exercise, diet and other lifestyle factors that promote wellness and prevent diseases, see the HelpingYouCare™ resource pages on Wellness/ Healthy Living for Seniors & Caregivers, including:
- Diet & Nutrition: Physical Wellness;
- Exercise: Physical Wellness;
- Sleep, Hygiene, Quit Smoking & Other Healthy Practices: Physical Wellness;
- Activities to Preserve Mental Acuity: Intellectual Wellness;
- Social Interaction & A Sense of Connection With Others: Social Wellness;
- Other Areas of Wellness: Emotional, Ethical/ Spiritual & Vocational Wellness; and
- Examples of Healthy Aging: Stories of Inspiring Seniors.
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EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this article appeared on HelpingYouCare™ on June 27, 2012. The article as published above has been updated and expanded.
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