En español | From the tango to the two-step, Americans are dancing their way to better health.
Our love affair with everything dance has sparked the first all-star edition of Dancing With the Stars, plus a just-ended ninth season for the summer hit, So You Think You Can Dance.
The two shows have also revived interest in dance classes nationally, including among older Americans. And no wonder: Dancing fosters both health and happiness.
Even if you flub a few steps, like former DWTS contestant and AARP fitness ambassador Martina Navratilova, it’s still fun and great for stretching the midsection, she says. “It will make anybody’s body more flexible,” the former tennis champion adds.
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“Dance is a joyful, fun and effective way for seniors to stay active and healthy,” agrees fitness expert Pamela Peeke, M.D., a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine.
Peeke says one reason dancing is successful is because most people don’t think of it as exercise — even though dancing actually moves more parts of the body than walking.
All that movement helps older adults improve their balance and flexibility, as well as increase muscle power in their legs and even strengthen bones, thanks to the fact that dancing is a weight-bearing exercise, a 2009 analysis of research in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity showed.
Recent studies have also found that dancing may protect against dementia. A Korean study last year in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine found that teaching the cha-cha to a small group of older adults twice a week for six months was enough to improve their memory and cognitive function on a number of tests.
For a group of Canadian seniors, ages 62 to 90, it was learning to tango that upped both their brain power and balance. The 2005 study by researchers with Montreal’s McGill University compared a group that took tango lessons twice weekly with a group that walked instead. After 10 weeks, both groups scored better on cognitive tests, but the dancers performed better than the walkers on multitasking tests. They also improved their balance and coordination.
Dance can also help those with Type 2 diabetes lower their blood pressure and control their weight. A pilot study last year of African American women with diabetes found that dancing twice a week for just 12 weeks significantly improved their blood pressure, body fat and weight.
The researchers, with the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University, wrote that the “camaraderie, enjoyment and laughter” during dance classes helped the women become more physically active and, in the process, improved their health.
Study author Carolyn Murrock, RN, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Akron who has studied dance exercise and diabetes, says dance works so well because it’s “an enjoyable way for older adults to become more active.”
Even for those who are already active, dancing provides benefits without the wear and tear that other forms of exercise can cause, says Navratilova.
She notes that dancing is “easy on the joints. It really opened me up and elongated my body.” Plus, she adds, “It’s a great workout and a lot of fun.”
Candy Sagon writes about health topics for AARP media.