Dancing to Stay Young

It’s no secret that dancing is fun, and a great way to get some exercise, too. But here’s something you might not know about fancy footwork: It can also help keep you young.

A recent study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience found that dancing can delay the aging process in amazing ways. Researchers enlisted elderly volunteers to take 18 months’ worth of weekly courses in either dance, or in endurance and flexibility training. At the end of the study, subjects in both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of their brains, an area that plays a key role in memory, learning, and maintaining balance. This is important, since the hippocampus can be vulnerable to age-related decline and can be affected by Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

But there was a key difference between the study groups: Only those people who had taken dance classes showed a noticeable difference in their behavior, such as an improved sense of balance. The reason? It’s thought that the challenge of learning and recalling new routines accounted for the dancers’ extra gains.

Debra Rose, professor of kinesiology and director of Cal State Fullerton’s Center for Successful Aging, isn’t surprised by these findings. “Research has demonstrated that among healthy older adults, dancing can improve aerobic fitness, glycemic control, and blood pressure, and that it’s good for cognitive functioning, too,” she says.

And dancing is more than just mindless exercise, Rose adds. “It has a social and emotional element to it. You tend to dance within a group, or with the support of a partner,” she explains. The chance to connect with others has long been known to be a brain- and immunity-booster.

And you don’t have to stick with just one kind of dance to reap benefits, Rose continues. “A number of types of dances have been investigated, including folk, rock, samba, and salsa,” she says. “The wonderful thing about it is that there is something for everyone.”

If you’ve never studied dance before, “Look for dance forms that move at a slower speed, so you can learn the steps without having to be pressured,” Rose recommends. It’s advice that’s seconded by Eliza Tollett, owner of The Ballet Spot in Manhattan. She suggests taking private lessons at first, so the pace is tailored to your specific learning curve. “I do private lessons with people who are over 60, and they are just starting to learn ballet,” she says. “Done right and thoughtfully, they are getting a cardio workout and they are balancing and using their muscles,” she says.

Private lessons sound too pricey? “Then look for a class labeled ‘Intro’ or ‘Beginner,” Tollet advises.

In addition to ballet, waltzing, folk, square, and line dances are all good choices for newbies, says Rose. “Line dancing in particular is good for people who think they don’t have a great sense of rhythm,” she shares. “In those groups, people find it doesn’t really matter if they’re on the beat or off it.”

Rose notes that dance has also been proven to help people with various health conditions. “People with stable congestive heart failure have shown improvement after dancing regularly, and dancing has been demonstrated to improve the overall functioning of people with Parkinson’s, by improving their aerobic capacity and coordination,” she says.

Of course, always check with your physician before beginning any new physical activity. But as long as you get the okay, start putting on your dancing shoes. It’s an ideal way to put your best foot forward in your golden years.

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