Could dancing have more health benefits than standard exercise?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

My gym offers several dance-themed exercise classes like Zumba. The brochure claims that dance may have more health benefits than standard exercise. Is that true?

DEAR READER:

We dance to express joy, celebrate life events and as a form of exercise. It turns out that the combination of music and dance may have benefits beyond those of exercise alone.

The evidence for the health benefits of exercise is unquestioned. Regular activity builds muscle and bone, reduces fat, increases aerobic capacity and lowers blood pressure. It also improves the ratio of “good” to “bad” cholesterol.

Dance has physical and cognitive benefits that may exceed those of other forms of exercise. It has been shown to improve balance, gait and quality of life in people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease. And several studies show that mastering dance movements and patterns improves memory and problem-solving skills more than walking does.

Then there’s the music that comes with dance. Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, reaching us in a very special way. In the remarkable documentary movie “Alive Inside,” you see how music can “awaken” people lost to Alzheimer’s disease. People who haven’t uttered a sentence longer than four words in a long time suddenly start singing complex lyrics from songs. People who haven’t expressed happiness in a long time suddenly start beaming as they sing along.

Then there’s the fact that dance is a way of celebrating, and we all need to celebrate from time to time. And when you celebrate along with many others on the dance floor, you compound the power of celebration.

There are many ways to enjoy dancing:

  • Take a class. Many Y’s and senior centers offer some type of group instruction for people at all levels. You’re most likely to find lessons in tai chi (a meditative exercise that is often performed to relaxing music) and Zumba (an aerobic workout that combines steps and moves from a variety of traditional dances, often to Latin music). Learning new types of ballroom dance can also be fun and challenging. If you don’t have a partner, many folk and line dances can be done solo.
  • Dance at home. If you want to practice in private, the internet has a variety of dance instruction videos. Your public library may also stock instructional dance videos. All you need is comfortable clothing, a pair of supportive shoes and enough space to move freely.

Finally, remember that dancing can be modified for almost everybody. People who can’t stand up can use their arms. People who have lost movement in their arms can dance with their torsos and legs. It’s a way to connect to your own body, to music and to other people.

Many years ago, a couple in my practice were having difficulties. A marriage counselor learned that they loved to dance when they first met, but that they hadn’t done it in recent years. The counselor suggested they learn to tango. It may have saved their marriage.