Both music and exercise help prevent and alleviate disease. Fusing the two may have even greater benefits than either alone.
Dancing is a universal human experience. We dance to express joy, celebrate life events, and enact religious and cultural rituals. Dance also has physical and cognitive benefits that may exceed those of other forms of exercise.
What dance does for your health
The evidence for the health benefits of exercise is indisputable. Physiologic studies have demonstrated that regular activity builds muscle and bone, reduces fat, increases aerobic capacity, lowers blood pressure, and improves the ratio of “good” to “bad” cholesterol. Dance has been shown to have all these benefits.
Moreover, by incorporating music, dance may have benefits beyond those of exercise alone. Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits. Dancing has been shown to improve balance, gait, and quality of life in people with Parkinson’s disease and related movement disorders. And several—but not all—studies have indicated that mastering dance movements and patterns yields greater improvements in memory and problem-solving than walking does.
“Dancing is accessible to everybody. People who can’t stand can use their arms; people who have lost movement in their arms can dance with their torsos and legs. It’s a way to connect to your own body, to music, and to other people. It just depends on what your goals are. But we know that there are so many benefits of dancing—cognitive, physical, and social—that it merits consideration by everybody,” says Dr. Lauren Elson, a former professional dancer who specializes in sports and rehabilitation medicine at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network.
How to get started
If you’ve ever danced you know how much fun it can be. Even if your rumba is a little rusty or your back step has slowed, it may be easier than you think to get back in the swing. If you’re not ready to jump on the dance floor at the next wedding or class reunion—maybe you’re a little shy or feel you have two left feet—there still are ways you can enjoy dancing.
Take a class. Many Y’s and senior centers offer some type of group instruction for people at all levels of expertise. You’re most likely to find lessons in tai chi (a meditative exercise that is often performed to relaxing music) and Zumba (an aerobic workout that combines steps and moves from a variety of traditional dances, often to Latin music). Learning new types of ballroom dance can also be fun and challenging. If you don’t have a partner, there is a world of folk and line dances that don’t require a pairing with another person. Many dance studios and square-dance and contra-dance groups create a friendly environment for people by promoting partner rotation, where you switch partners and dance with someone new each time. You might also consider taking up (or resuming) tap, which can build bones, or ballet to strengthen core muscles and improve balance.
Dance at home. If you want to practice in private, the Internet has a wide variety of dance instruction videos, such as the popular “Dance for Dummies,” that demonstrate the steps in slow motion and allow you to proceed at your own pace. Your public library may also stock instructional dance videos that are available to check out. All you need is comfortable clothing, a pair of supportive shoes, and enough space to move freely.
“In any instance you’re getting the benefit of connecting to the music, so you’re involving a part of the brain that isn’t necessarily being tapped when you’re doing something like walking that is more rote,” Dr. Elson says.