Why Dancing is Good for Your Health

It has been known for a long time that physical activity –including dancing and exercises- can have several positive effects on people’s bodies and minds, leading to better cardiovascular health, fewer migraine headaches, and a sharper brain.

The Einstein Aging Study carried out in the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found that dancing helps prevent both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, which is the next most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Joseph Verghese, the lead researcher of the Einstein Aging Study said, “Dance is not purely physical in many ways, it also requires a lot of mental effort.” Among the people who participated in the Einstein Aging Study, those who danced frequently –three or four times a week- showed 76 percent less incidence of dementia than those who danced only once a week or didn’t dance at all.

In the Middle East, one of the most popular styles of dancing is belly dancing, which utilizes muscles in the abdomen, pelvis, trunk, spine, and neck. The most sensual belly dancer of all times was “Princess Banu” who danced in a London restaurant called Gallipoli. Many dancers tried to copy her style, with no success. The Turkish Ministry of Culture proclaimed Princess Banu as “The National Dancer of Turkey”

Although dancing can be done as a competitive activity, as in ballroom dancing, most people practice it as a way of being more physically active and of staying fit. In addition, dancing has social and emotional elements that are advantageous for all people, but particularly for those older without many social connections but who want to lead long and healthy lives.

Many people who dread exercising are more prone to use dancing as a way of overall physical improvement. While most exercises tend to use repetitive motions that many find boring, dancing uses a wide variety of movements and has the additional advantage of social interaction with different people. As a result, it can provide greater self-confidence and self-esteem, enhance a general sense of well-being, and lead to more active social relationships.

Researchers found that after age 40, people who had been actively dancing throughout their lives have younger-looking skin, similar to that of people in their 20s or 30s, even if those participating in the study were older than 65. Dancing can improve the condition of heart and lungs, make bones stronger and reduce the risk of osteoporosis, and increase muscular strength, physical endurance, and motor fitness.

Dancing can have some additional health benefits. Listening to tango at Taller Latinoamericano, one of New York’s premier language and dance schools, reminded me of an incident in Buenos Aires. I was having a late lunch at a downtown restaurant, just a sandwich and a salad, when I noticed a man in his middle seventies having a hearty soup and then a huge steak with French fries and a salad. As a dessert, he had a caramel pudding. Since he was a very thin man I couldn’t but ask him how it was possible that he was having such a huge lunch and still be in good shape. His answer took me by surprise. “Years ago,” he said, “I was a very sick man with arthritis so severe that I couldn’t cross a wide street without some concern. I stayed mostly at home, feeling miserable since I was always a very active person. One day, at a friend’s suggestion, I decided to start dancing the tango. With some trepidation at the beginning, soon I was becoming more and more at ease until I reached a point when I practically went dancing the tango almost every night. Soon I recovered my strength and the freedom of my movements and what you see is the new man that I became.”

Agnieszka Burzynska, an assistant professor in Colorado State University’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies published a study showing the effect of dancing in the “white matter” in the brain.

Although the brain’s “gray matter” is better known because it is the tissue of the brain that contains the neurons, “white matter” can be considered as the brain’s wiring, similar to cables connecting discs in a computer. As people age, the quality of the brain’s wiring deteriorates, provoking disruptions in the transmissions of the electrical messages in the brain. This communication is critical for any brain function.

Burzynska and her team carried out the study in 174 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 79 who met three times a week for six months in a gym at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Burzynska found that dancing has a very positive effect on the “fornix”, an area of white matter that carries a bundle of those “wires” and that plays an important role in memory.

Although the deterioration of the fornix has been linked to progression from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s disease, Burzynska’s team found that the integrity of the fornix increased in the dance group. A control group that only exercised didn’t show the same benefits. Given all these health benefits, we can all use a bit more dancing in our lives.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”