Can we dance our way to health?

Is dance different from other types of exercise? Can it help protect both our physical health and our mental health? What about Zumba? What if we have two left feet? 

Is dance just another type of exercise - or is there something special about it? 

Dance involves physical activity, so provides health benefits as a form of exercise. However, it also has some special qualities. In particular: 

  • It is usually something we do with other people, so it has a beneficial social dimension.
  • It involves rhythmic coordination to music. Some research suggests this rhythmic, musical element helps our immune system – while we know from experience that music can make dance more enjoyable and something we want to repeat.
  • Most types of dance (from ethnic to ballroom) involve learning and remembering complex movements. This means that dance probably engages our brain more than most other types of exercise.  

Can dance improve physical fitness? 

At one level dance is a form of exercise, so good for improving physical fitness. However, some types of dance seem to be particularly good here. 

For example, in a small scale study in 2010, Dr Paul Dougall at Strathclyde University found that Scottish country dancers were more agile, had stronger legs and could walk more briskly than people of the same age who took part in exercises such as swimming, walking, golf and keep-fit classes. 

While a small study commissioned by the American Council for Exercise, concluded Zumba is ‘a good, high-energy aerobic workout.’ 

Can dance help fight disease? 

Regular dance sessions have also been shown to: 

These findings suggest that dance may help protect against the complications and disability associated with a number of different chronic diseases. 

Can dance help you age well? 

In April 2016 the BBC1 programme How to stay young reported on a small scale study in Germany. This found that dance was more effective than going to the gym in slowing ageing. 

Dance has been shown to ameliorate the physical and psychological signs of ageing, from helping reduce the uncomfortable effects of menopause to improving gait in the elderly. 

A 2015 study suggested a possible physiological way in which dance achieves these effects. Regular dance was found to decrease levels of at least two different inflammatory markers in the blood. These results agreed with earlier findings from neuroscience that described how rhythmic movement had a calming effect on the immune system, effectively calming the rate at which we age. 

Can dance protect against dementia? 

In 2003 the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reported a 21 year study of 469 people aged 75 plus in the United States. This suggested that dance was unique among physical activities in reducing the risk of dementia – possibly by as much as 76%. That was more even than reading, playing board games, doing crossword puzzles and other ways of keeping cognitively active. 

We haven’t found many recent studies on dance and dementia. However, one more recent study on healthy elderly people showed that even infrequent dancing was enough to produce cognitive improvements and increase attention span over time. 

Can it help with depression and stress? 

Regular dance has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in geriatric nursing home residents. It has been suggested that this is due to dance helping improve physical fitness, which in turn helps people feel more independent  and enjoy a better quality of life - and also to the effect of regular exposure to uplifting music and increased opportunities for socialising and enjoyment.  

A second study, published in 2013 described similar results in younger subjects. Regular blood analyses showed that the reduction in depressive symptoms, improved mood and reduced stress reported by the participants were matched by increased blood serotonin (the happiness hormone), increased endorphin (responsible for the ‘runner’s high’) and decreased cortisol (stress hormone) levels. 

Sounds good so far, any other benefits? 

Dance can help you feel good about yourself! A 2014 study looked at the effect of dancing in 283 pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. Girls who had participated in regular dance-based activities for 12 months or longer were found to have a more positive body image than their non-dancing peers in addition to higher self-esteem. 

What about Zumba? 

This is one of the most widely available and easily accessible forms of dance currently available in the UK. It is a Latin dance based workout that has experienced a significant growth in popularity in recent years. 

A number of articles published in the last three years have looked at the effects of Zumba on health. These have ranged from studies with young, healthy participants to older less active and overweight ones. Initial results suggest that as little as eight weeks of regular Zumba sessions were enough to improve participants’ aerobic fitness levels. Zumba also appeared to help weight loss, with a reduction in body fat and an increase in overall muscle mass. These are mainly short, small- scale studies, suggesting that more research is needed. However, the initial results appear promising. 

At the same time Zumba can be very demanding in terms of the twists and torque exerted on the body. So check the instructor understands safe exercise techniques, to minimise the risk of injury. 

But I have two left feet! Or I am too old/young/unfit? 

Dance based activities are widely available, require no prior experience, special equipment, preparation (or partners!) and can even be done at home, via DVD. There are so many types of dance available you should be able to find one to suit you – from ballroom to Bollywood, line dancing to disco, morris dancing to belly dancing and many more! 

Experts say that ability shouldn’t be a barrier to participation, as you can move at your own pace and still reap plenty of benefits. 

Conclusions 

  • Dance provides physical activity, cognitive activity and a rhythmic response to music, usually in a social setting. 
  • This potentially powerful combination appears to be good for both our physical health and our mental health – while also helping slow the process of ageing. 
  • With so many types of dance to choose from, it seems worth a try, whatever your age and even if you have two left feet. 

 So…Shall we dance? 

Published April 2013, Reviewed and updated by Deepti Aswani March 2016   

Next review date December 2018

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