Dance Your Way to a Better Brain

By Mary West

Originally published by Live in the Now

A new study has found that both traditional exercise and dancing have an anti-aging effect on the brain. However, it appears that dancing provides the additional benefit of improved balance, likely from the process of learning dance routines.

As people age, they suffer a decline in mental and physical fitness. Not everyone is motivated to exercise regularly, a discipline that slows and, in some cases, reverses these effects. It’s good to know that a fun activity like dancing can produce equal or superior advantages.

“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study. “In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that led to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”

Comparing Dance to Traditional Exercise

In the study, participants with an average age of 68 were recruited and assigned to an eighteen-month weekly course of either endurance and flexibility training or learning dance routines. Both activities led to an increase in size of the hippocampus, the brain structure that controls learning, memory and balance. Because this region is vulnerable to age-related decline and the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, the benefit was of particular importance.

Earlier research has shown that exercise reduces the brain deterioration associated with aging, but studies haven’t compared types of workouts to determine which one offers the most advantages. Therefore, the effects of cycling and Nordic walking were compared with those of learning a new dance routine every week.

“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,” explained Rehfeld.

Balance Benefit

Dancing involves different physical and mental challenges that aren’t a part of traditional exercise. It improves the body’s integration of information coming from the eyes, inner ear, muscles and the sense of touch; because of this, researchers reasoned that this aspect of the activity produced the increased balance. Because balance is essential for everyday functioning, and an impairment in the function results in the major health threat of falls, this benefit was deemed quite valuable.

Aside from dancing’s effect on brain function, aging and balance, it provides social stimulation and relieves loneliness. When you factor in all of these advantages, it’s no wonder that studies link it to reduced stress and depression as well as increased longevity. Perhaps it’s time to get out those dancing shoes.