This article originally appeared on Live in the Now.
Scientists are discovering some fascinating advantages of dance that go beyond the expected effects of exercise. In certain maladies, this activity is trumping other modes of intervention, leading to improved health that could not likely be attained by any other means.
In a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City tested the effects of various physical and cognitive activities on mental acuity in aging. The length of the study was 21 years, and the participants were 75 and older. Cognitive activities evaluated included reading, doing crossword puzzles and writing for pleasure, as well as playing musical instruments and playing cards. Physical activities tested included dancing, golf and tennis along with swimming, bicycling and walking for exercise.
Surprisingly, the only physical activity found to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing. What’s more is that dance had a much greater effect in warding off dementia than any cognitive activity. Reading reduced the risk of dementia by 35 percent, while doing crossword puzzles reduced the risk of dementia by 47 percent. However, frequent dancing proved superior to these mental activities, as it reduced dementia by 76 percent. Based on these impressive results, the authors made the recommendation for people to dance as often as possible.
In addition to improved mental function, dance increases serotonin levels in the brain, reducing stress and depression while imparting a sense of emotional well-being. Research also shows elderly people who dance have less frequent falls and have a reduced risk of bone fractures. The activity seems to strengthen weight-bearing bones.
The physical benefits involve more than a cardiovascular workout and improved circulation. Ken Richards, spokesman for USA Dance, says ballroom dancing works some parts of the body differently than many other types of exercise, especially for women because they have to dance backwards.
As many as 1 million Americans are afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, a chronic movement disorder that involves tremors and stiff limbs along with slow movements and impaired balance. Some patients participating in dance lessons at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn are prolonging their quality of life and finding relief from their debilitating symptoms. It appears that the activity can help improve balance and gait. “People are dancing with a freedom that they couldn’t imagine,” reports artistic director Mark Morris.
A dancing expert postulates that the benefit lies in the fact that the activity integrates several brain functions simultaneously, serving to increase neural connectivity. Additionally, it involves rapid split-second decision-making.
Dance is a unique form of exercise that involves music and rhythm. Multifaceted, it has emotional, mental and social aspects in addition to the physical. Whatever the scientific principles are that produce its advantages, it is clearly beneficial for health.
So… shall we dance?