When was the last time you danced? Has it been years? Do you remember how fun it was when you did?
Especially if you find running or walking a chore, going to the gym a bore, or lifting weights tiresome, you might want to seriously consider giving dancing a try — even if it’s been a while since you last got your groove on. New research proves the very real benefits of dance as cardiovascular exercise, and some researchers have found it has benefits beyond the physical.
In a study published in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation that looked at older adults in a Latino community, researchers found that of the 57 people who took a twice-a-week salsa class (half the group danced, while the other half — the control group — attended a health education program), both groups increased physical activity over the 4 months the experiment ran. But the salsa-dancing group was more active.
Not only did they get more movement in, they were more mobile overall (an important metric for senior health). In a 400-meter walk, the health education group walked 10 seconds faster than they did at the beginning of the experiment. But the dancing group walked 38 seconds faster when times were averaged across the group.
Study co-author David Marquez, associate professor in the department of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago told Time magazine , “Very few have studied the influence of dancing on health” — part of the reason he wanted to look at exactly how beneficial it could be.
And that’s just the most recent data: In 2008 this study in the Journal of Exercise Physiology found that in a small sample of middle-aged, formerly sedentary women an hour of aerobic dance twice a week for three months, “…decreased heart rate significantly and…increase[d] abdominal muscle strength.”
The benefits of dance aren’t just physical. “We hope that’s challenging them cognitively as well,” said Marquez, of his salsa-dancing seniors. While movement and exercise (both aerobic and anaerobic) is tied to cognitive health in people of all ages, the very nature of dancing — listening to music, moving the body, engaging in (physical and verbal) conversation with one’s partner, adding steps and skills over time — may also lead to happier, more joyful days overall.
This 2014 meta-analysis looked at over 20 years of research on dance and mental health. Examining the 23 studies over 15 different populations, the researchers found, “small but consistent effects for improvement of well-being, mood, affect, and body image,” as well as some moderate positive effects on depression and anxiety in the dancers compared to those who didn’t.
Dancing isn’t just good for adults either; a study of pre-pubescent ballet dancers found that they had greater bone mass than non-dancers. Stronger bone mass in youth can help those people avoid osteoporosis later in life.
Of course, if you have access to, and an interest in dancing as part of a group, there are classes available in many locations, and if you are looking for something cheap or free, check out MeetUp for locals who might be willing to show a newbie the steps. If you are into a more meditative and less partner-based approach, 5Rhythms has classes all over the country that are meant to be a combination of meditation and workout.
You can also search around online for venues that host nights for the specific type of dance you’re interested in. In my own experience, I’ve found that salsa dancers are especially welcoming to people who haven’t danced before!
If you want to get some practice moves in before you show up somewhere, there is a wealth of “how to” videos on YouTube. (Some great dancers have taught themselves amazing routines from online videos alone.)
If group activities aren’t your thing, that doesn’t mean you can’t make dancing a part of your life. You could try doing videos at home just for your own fun and exercise and never take it public; you’ll still reap benefits from moving and connecting with your body. Of course, you can keep it ultra-simple by just turning on some of your favorite music, donning some comfy clothes, and getting down. If it’s been a while since you have last danced, you will feel rusty at first — just keep moving and you will remember how it goes.