Dancing May Be the Best Form of Exercise

In the endless search for a low-effort, high-results workout, it comes pretty close

A group of young people dancing together in a studio
Photo: gradyreese/E+/Getty

TThe trouble with exercise is that it’s easy to avoid. Only 23% of American adults meet the federal recommendations for two hours and 30 minutes of weekly aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercises. The reasons are plentiful, mostly involving motivation and time. And herein lies the beauty of dance.

Estimates suggest that people can burn about 200 calories in 30 minutes from a quick-paced dance routine. And growing research suggests that dancing not only helps people stay in physical shape but also improves brain and mental health.

The reason dance is ideal exercise is because it’s a total-body workout. “It’s a great way to access all movement planes and access some muscles that get ignored in typical day-to-day activities,” says Lynn Berman, a physical therapist and owner of Spring Forward Physical Therapy in New York City.

“Depending on the type of dance, it can offer cardiovascular benefits by increasing your heart rate, it can help strengthen the lower and upper extremities through repeated muscle contractions, and it can challenge coordination and balance, especially when following a choreographed dance at different tempos,” he adds.

Once you get into it, dance also feels good. In a 2011 research study, researchers at Selçuk University in Konya, Turkey, examined 120 dance conservatory students who participated in 12 weeks of dance movement therapy for depression. For three days a week, the students learned and practiced moves from rumba and classical dance. The researchers found that the students who experienced dance movement therapy reported feeling less depressed at the end of the three months.

Dancing also appears to affect the brain in ways that extend beyond mental health conditions. “One of the benefits of physical activity is that it enhances executive function and attention, processing speed, and memory,” says Shilagh Mirgain, PhD, a psychologist who studies mood and anxiety disorders as well as sports rehabilitation at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin. “Dancing involves both a mental effort and social interaction. Regular dancing can help prevent cognitive decline as we age and is associated with a reduced risk of dementia.”

“It can offer cardiovascular benefits by increasing your heart rate, it can help strengthen the lower and upper extremities through repeated muscle contractions, and it can challenge coordination and balance.”

A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society uncovered that, over time, activities such as dance and tai chi were able to improve global cognition, cognitive flexibility, working memory, and verbal fluency. It’s still unclear why dancing is associated with these better brain conditions, but prior studies suggest that dancing can improve the quality of “white matter” in the brain. White matter is a connective tissue that breaks down as people age, leading to issues with memory. Higher-quality white matter could be part of the reason dancing improves brain health.

The most practical rationale for dancing as exercise is that it’s highly accessible. “Dancing on your own is a great option for those who are not able to attend a class or feel uncomfortable dancing around others,” Mirgain says. “To get the most out of a solo dance experience, consider scheduling it into your calendar once a week, experiment with different music, and try it out when feeling different moods. Dance just for yourself, allowing any movements to flow that feel good — or pretend that someone is watching to enhance your personal dancing experience.”

If dancing alone feels too weird, Bridgette Duncan, a Pilates instructor, certified personal trainer, and former professional dancer, recommends finding a class at a local community recreation center — many offer free dance-based classes or a pay-as-you-wish option. “Local churches and community centers, even libraries, are often underutilized resources that people can go to for dance movement–based practices,” she says.

Writer, Blogger + Speaker covering all things Self-Care. I recently launched a podcast, Re-Written, listen to it here: http://aishabeau.com/podcast/

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