Ballroom Dancing May Help Mind, Body, and Spirit – Dance your way to a better health.
Tangos, waltzes, sambas, and foxtrots are gliding across America’s TV sets on the hit ballroom dance show, Dancing with the Stars.
Do you tap along with the beat as you watch? Or shimmy during the commercial breaks? This may be one time when health experts won’t fret if you follow in the footsteps of prime-time TV. Ballroom dancing could help the mind and body, they say.
Is It Exercise?
The TV show’s contestants are often winded after their routines. One dancer from last season said he lost 15 pounds.
How typical is that? It depends on the type of dancing and your skill level, says exercise physiologist Catherine Cram, MS, of Comprehensive Fitness Consulting in Middleton, Wis.
“Once someone gets to the point where they’re getting their heart rate up, they’re actually getting a terrific workout,” says Cram.
Dance is a weight-bearing activity, which builds bones. It’s also “wonderful” for your upper body and strength, says Cram.
Would-be dancers should consult their doctors first, especially if they have any health problems, says Cram.
New ballroom dancers may feel muscles they didn’t know they had. That often happens with a new activity, says Ken Richards, spokesman for USA Dance, the national governing body of DanceSport — the competitive version of ballroom dancing.
Ballroom dancing often means moving backward, especially for women, says Richards, a professional ballroom dancing veteran.
“If you’re dancing the foxtrot, you’re taking long, sweeping steps backwards. That’s very different than walking forward on a treadmill or taking a jog around the neighborhood,” he says.
Ballroom dancing works the backs of the thighs and buttock muscles differently from many other types of exercise, says Richards.
The legs and arms often do the flashy dance moves. But they’re sunk without a strong body core.
The “core” muscles — the abs and back — are also used in Pilates, says Janice Byer. A lifelong dancer, Byer is group exercise director of The Courthouse Athletic Club in Oakland, Calif. Byer and her husband (whom she met through dancing) are avid swing dancers.
At least one observational study has shown sharper minds with ballroom dancing.
The study appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine two years ago. Joe Verghese, MD, and colleagues studied 469 people who were at least 75 years old.
At the study’s start, they answered surveys about mental and physical activities, like doing crossword puzzles or dancing. Back then, none had dementia.
Five years later, 124 had dementia. Frequent dancers had a reduced risk of dementia compared with those who rarely or never danced.
Of 11 physical activities considered, only dancing was tied to a lower dementia risk, Verghese tells WebMD.
Most dancers did ballroom dancing, says Verghese. He’s an assistant neurology professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
The Dancing Brain
How might ballroom dancing help the brain? Verghese outlines three possibilities:
- Increased blood flow to the brain from the physical exercise
- Less stress, depression, and loneliness from dancing’s social aspect
- Mental challenges (memorizing steps, working with your partner)
“Dance, in many ways, is a complex activity. It’s not just purely physical,” says Verghese.
Check Your Ego at the Door
Here’s some advice for beginners from New York dance therapist Jane Wilson Cathcart, LMSW, ADTR, CMA:
- Look for a good teacher who emphasizes what you can do, not your limits.
- Don’t be a perfectionist about it.
- Don’t worry about your size. Dance is for everyone.
- Get into the music, as well as the movement.
“Take in all the good feedback you’re getting and give your inner judge a couple of dollars to go to the movies,” says Cathcart.
“We are usually our own worst critic,” says Cathcart. “Think of how many other times your critical judge has limited you from doing something.”
New skills can bring confidence. At parties and social events, dancers may head to the dance floor feeling good about themselves without a martini’s encouragement, Richards jokes.
“Lay the pathwork of positivity through it,” says Cathcart. “The coolest dance begins with one step. The rest will follow.”