Researchers identify exercise for optimal health of body and mind

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published August 8, 2019

Key Takeaways

Dancing—perhaps more so than any other movement of the body—can lower your anxiety, improve your physical health, benefit your emotional health, and be good for the brain, all at the same time.

Dancing, some argue, is as essential to life as eating, sleeping, and drinking. Dance has been an essential element of humanity since before the rise of the earliest human civilizations. It is prehistoric.

Therefore, it is surprising that only recently have researchers looked to dance as a viable topic of study. But, the more they look, the more they find that dancing can have significant benefits on one’s overall health.

The very things that are essential to dance—music, movement, and social interaction—are a potent combination for the body, mind, and soul. Indeed, when each taken separately, these factors have all been documented to improve mind and body health. How much more beneficial are they when combined—in the form of dance?

According to researchers at the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Berkeley, CA, dancing is fantastic for both your body and your mind because it causes the release of the very chemicals that are good for your brain: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.

  • Dopamine is the reward hormone. It’s released in the brain anytime we experience a pleasurable moment, as well as when we anticipate or remember them. Music increases dopamine levels, which is also released by spontaneous body movements—like dancing.
  • Oxytocin is the connection hormone, and is released when we physically come in contact with or bond with other people, both intimately and socially.
  • Serotonin allows us to feel emotional contentment and ease. Physical activity and exercise release serotonin. Adequate serotonin levels have been shown to prevent anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and slow the aging process in the brain.
  • Endorphins are the pain-relief hormones produced by the nervous system to cope with discomfort during physical activity, pain, or stress. But, endorphins have a number of physiologic functions as well, and are also responsible for our feelings of pleasure. They are released by exercise, as well as other activities like meditation, eating chocolate, and having sex. Endorphins are responsible for what is known as “runner’s high,” and trigger a euphoric feeling in the body, similar to dopamine.

The mood-boosting effects of dancing can contribute to better emotional health, which in turn can lead to improvements in our overall health. Poor emotional health has been linked to a weakened immune system, which may, in turn, be associated with a higher incidence of chronic conditions, including fatigue, headache, insomnia, pain, and high blood pressure.   

But dancing doesn’t just boost our mood. Several clinical studies have shown that it can have physical benefits as well.

Lowers cardiovascular mortality risk. Moderate-intensity dancing was associated with a reduction in the risk for cardiovascular disease mortality more so than walking in a pooled analysis of 11 population-based cohorts that included 48,390 adults aged 40 years or older who were free of cardiovascular disease at baseline. Researchers explained that this effect may be due to the spurts of high-intensity activity that naturally happen during dancing, a lifelong habit of dancing, and the psychosocial benefits of dancing.

Reduces the risk of dementia. Older adults who danced three or more times per week had a 76% reduction in their risk for dementia, according to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Researchers assessed the relationship between leisure activities and the risk of dementia in 469 community-dwelling adults older than 75 years. Dancing, playing musical instruments, reading, and playing board games all reduced the risk of dementia.

Counteracts age-related decline. After an 18-month dancing intervention, healthy seniors over 65 years of age experienced increases in hippocampal volume, primarily of the left hippocampus, with additional increases in the left dentate gyrus and the right subiculum, according to a recent study on hippocampal plasticity and balance abilities. In addition, compared with participants who took part in a traditional health fitness training program, dancers demonstrated significant increases in their balance composite scores. Researchers concluded that “dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.”

Improves physical fitness. Dancing significantly improved physical fitness, static balance, and handgrip strength in adults aged 60 years and older who attended twice-weekly, 75-minute, Greek traditional dance sessions for 32 weeks, according to the most recent study on the benefits of dance. Researchers concluded that the “elderly seem to enjoy dancing as an activity while maintaining their functionality. Probably the elderly in traditional dance cause prosperity in their lives by promoting active aging.”

The types of dancing are almost endless—rock, ballroom, swing, Latin, country-western, folk, tango, club dance, Zumba, and belly dancing are just a few. So, get out there and shake your groove thing, bust a move, cut a rug, strut your stuff, or just get your groove on. Your mind and body will thank you, even if the rest of the dance floor—or your partner—does not!

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