Get Into The Groove: The Health Benefits of Dancing

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM; Carrie Lam, MD

Have you ever found yourself tapping your foot when a catchy tune is playing? Or how about your head nodding and your fingers tapping on the steering wheel while driving with the radio on? Movement of any sort is seemingly a spontaneous reaction to music, and many of us do it. Dancing in any shape or form is an inherent part of being human, and the health benefits of dancing impact us on many levels.

Dancing may be seen as a form of escape, or a means of getting into shape. Have you noticed that when you’re feeling down, putting on some music and dancing — even if only just swaying back and forth — helps you to take your mind off your troubles and get caught up in the movement? For those who are carrying around a few pounds too many, dancing not only offers you a means of toning your muscles and getting fit, it also actively helps you trim off some of those extra pounds. In effect, the health benefits of dancing benefit you both physically and psychologically.

For many people, dancing is just a form of recreation. They usually overlook the health benefits of dancing when it comes to their physical, emotional, and social health. Dancing is probably the most basic, honest form of communication between your body, mind, and environment. It could almost be described as a process that integrates both body and soul, and it may be the key to unlocking a healthier lifestyle.

The Health Benefits of Dancing Are All About You

Dancing gives you a great cardiovascular workout. An added bonus is that you can do it anywhere with no need to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. No tools are required. All that’s needed is a little music, and you.

The type of workout you end up getting depends entirely on you. What kind of movements do you make? What is the intensity of your dancing? Are all muscle groups getting a workout? Are you concentrating on certain moves that need more complex execution, and is balance a part of your routine?

Interestingly, social dancing may give you even more of a cardiovascular workout than a dance routine. This is because endurance tends to come into play, as you may dance with others (i.e. exercise) for a much longer period of time than you would at home. Structured dancing sees you working out in quick bursts, and is more often focused on style and specific moves and muscle groups. No matter where you dance, however, the end result is what matters.

Dancing is especially beneficial for the elderly because it improves their range of motion while allowing the joints to move freely in the process.

But there is more to the health benefits of dancing than just the physical aspects.

Improving Memory

Cognitive decline is a fact of life for many older people. Those in the medical field have, for decades, tried to find innovative ways to slow down this phenomenon. Research has been conducted into whether continued physical activities would slow down the rate of this decline.

The research focused on adults ranging in age from sixty into the eighties who had not shown signs of cognitive decline or impairment. They were each assigned one of three different activities: walking, dancing, or stretch and balance training. The dance group gathered three times a week to practice country dancing. The goal of the study was to compare the scans of the different individuals in each group, both before and after the onset of these activities. Those in the dance group fared much better than their counterparts who participated in the other activities. They showed less deterioration in cognitive abilities.

The difference between dancing and the other activities is simple – memory is exercised when learning new dance skills.

A Form of Escape

The health benefits of dancing include escaping from your daily grind and stress. Very often, our days are overshadowed by stress. It could be stress about your job, your finances, or even about getting the roof fixed. It impacts you, and your health, negatively.

Dancing, according to a study conducted in 2014, improves the mood in those who dance recreationally. Energy levels seem higher, and participants seem less tense, as compared to those who dance competitively. Dancing for recreation tends to release endorphins. The positive feeling of euphoria many people experience when this happens can be compared to a “runner’s high,” when a runner pushes through the boundaries of tiredness, receiving a rush of endorphins that enables them to complete the race with energy to spare.

Dancing not only improves the mood, but the rhythmic movements quiet the brain. No conversation is required. It’s just you, the music and the movement. It also improves cognitive flexibility when new moves are learned.

A study also shows the numerous health benefits of dancing in adolescent girls. Their thoughts became more positive and their self-confidence showed a marked improvement. Additionally, their overall health also improved when classes were aimed at the enjoyment of movement rather than performance perfection.

Improving Both Balance and Coordination

It is estimated that a quarter of adults over 65 fall each year. Additionally, millions of people, including children and teenagers, get hurt playing sports. There is one very simple solution to getting hurt due to a fall: fall the way a dancer does. The different techniques taught during dance classes make you more aware of your body while teaching you low-impact landings. This saves your joints and reduces your chances of hurting yourself.

Older people are most at risk of getting hurt when they fall. Besides teaching you how to land, dancing also increases your sense of balance. When you compare dancers to athletes, the former have fewer knee injuries due to certain exercises that result in less force generated throughout the body. These controlled movements, when taught to those partaking in high-impact sports, may result in a decline in joint injuries.

Anyone Can Do It

Anyone can enjoy the health benefits of dancing. There is no age limit or gender requirement. Your music preference also has no bearing on the matter. All that matters is the movement.

You see, dancing has no rules. There is no specific structure (unless you want there to be). All your muscles, bones, and joints are involved. It is an exercise for anyone and everyone.

The Science Behind the Health Benefits of Dancing

Stress of any kind results in your body producing more cortisol as a coping mechanism. This is something you have no control over and is part of your body’s NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response. This sudden increase in cortisol production means that certain other functions are either reduced or stop entirely. Usually, all returns to normal once the stress is over. Prolonged stress, however, means that these functions keep on performing sub-optimally, and may have long-lasting, even severe, negative repercussions.

These include, amongst others, a hormone imbalance, a compromised metabolism, a negative neuro-affect response which includes certain brain functions, a cardionomic response that negatively impacts heart and lung health, an inflammation response that sees your immune system suppressed, and a negative detoxification response that results in oxidative damage and a metabolite overload. The symptoms of these can be debilitating and result in a condition commonly referred to as Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

It Starts in the Brain

Your body’s reaction to stress starts in the hypothalamus. From there, chemical messengers are sent to the pituitary gland which in turn instructs the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol. Together, these three form what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. One of the consequences of prolonged cortisol production is a reduction in the release of other hormones, including those found in the brain.

Although dancing initially increases cortisol production, it stimulates the release of endorphins. These give you a feeling of well-being, which ultimately results in a reduction of cortisol production. The health benefits of dancing thus start in the brain. Together with this, the exercise provided by dancing reduces stress, fights anxiety and depression, improves your sleep, and helps to improve self-esteem.

Furthermore, it assists with weight loss, helps with heart health, reduces blood pressure, improves muscle tone and bone strength, and increases your energy levels.

If you are in advanced stages of AFS, do consult your healthcare provider before embarking on any dancing routine that can potentially drain you of your already low reserve. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure you have completed the Adrenal Yoga Exercises to improve core strength as a prerequisite.
  • Stay well hydrated before and after dancing.
  • Keep your blood sugar steady by eating a snack 30 minutes before and immediately after finishing the dancing.
  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Scale back your dancing intensity if you feel tired at any time for at least six continuous hours immediately following the dancing.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

The answer is a resounding NO. The health benefits of dancing include many other benefits, such as heart health, increased muscle tone, better bone health, and a decline in the loss of cognitive ability. It makes you feel good about yourself, too.

Health benefits of dancing