Beyond Physical Fitness- 13 Essential Dance Benefits 

Endorphins rise as dancers spin during an Evening of Viennese Waltz

An Evening of Viennese Waltz

Dance brings up images of little girls learning to be graceful, joyful people ballroom dancing, aerobics to hip songs or awe inspiring professional dancers performing super human feats with ease. I hope this blog will help you consider dance as an essential therapeutic activity.

There is mounting scientific evidence suggesting that dance provides a surprising range of psychological and physiological benefits. These benefits range from greater calm, elevated mood, improved memory and more elastic blood vessels.

 

Serotonin and norepinephrine neurotransmitters naturally rise during as dancers exert force during a dance performance.

Diana-Liz Gallego, Rejuvenating Dance founder, performing a liturgical dance.

Why I Dance

I was born a dancer and for most of life, like most dancers, I didn’t dance for fitness; I danced because I felt free, alive and energized. No matter the problems in my life I could cope after an hour or so of dancing.

I danced for the feel-good mood produced by increased levels of serotonin and norepinephrine neurotransmitters. These feel-good chemicals are naturally release as a response to physical exertion. Whether you are a beginner or advanced dancer and even if you are just taking part in aerobic activities or working out by doing sit-ups, neurotransmitters will lift your mood.

Dance also releases endorphins, brain chemicals that promote satisfaction, euphoria, and a high pain tolerance. Dancers experience the equivalent to a runner’s high as they spin across the dance floor in a Viennese waltz or execute ballet pirouette turns. While physical exercise imparts many of the same benefits as dance, there are significant differences as you will see.

Today, while I still enjoy the physical, emotional and spiritual experiences of dancing, there is another reason why I dance. I dance for Alzheimer’s prevention. My grandmother, my mother and two of my three uncles have died from Alzheimer’s Disease. By dancing, I relinquish my status as a powerless victim. Here are two studies that give me hope that I can age with mental acuity regardless of my genetic inheritance.

 

Dance Reduced the Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Leisure Dance Activities-A 21-year study of senior citizens, 75 and older, was led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, funded by the National Institute on Aging, and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  The study was conducted to determine if any physical or cognitive recreational activities influenced mental acuity.  They discovered that some activities, but not all, had significant beneficial cognitive effects.

The cognitive activities studied included reading books, writing for pleasure, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards and playing musical instruments.  The physical activities studied included playing tennis, golf, swimming, bicycling, dancing, walking for exercise and doing housework. Their method for objectively measuring mental acuity also included monitoring subjects’ rates of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.

Some results:

Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week – 47% reduced risk.

Reading – 35% reduced risk of dementia
Bicycling and swimming – 0%
Playing golf – 0%

Dance decreased the risk of dementia 76%

Dance decreased the risk of dementia 76%

The Study’s Surprise

One of the surprises of the study was that almost none of the physical activities appeared to offer any protection against dementia.  There were cardiovascular benefits of course, but the focus of the study was the mind not the body. However, there was one important exception:  the only physical activity to offer protection against dementia was frequent dancing.

Dancing frequently demonstrated a 76% reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. Dance offered the greatest risk reduction in all activities studied, cognitive and physical.  The decrease in dementia resulted from the inherent benefits of dancing frequently. The results of this study give me great hope. The senior citizens were merely performing a fun leisure activity, one that I have been doing joyfully all my life.

Dance and Neurogenesis

A March 2015  study compared the effects of participation in either a dance program or a conventional physical fitness sport program on brain function and hippocampal volume in healthy seniors. Dance and fitness control subjects were compared using an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests to establish a baseline on verbal short and long-term memory tests.  Plasma levels of brained derived neurotrophic factor (known as BDNF), a protein related to nerve growth, were measured. And finally, MRI’s were used to measure physical brain changes.

The dance program used a specially designed intervention that required participants to explore different dance styles every two weeks and to learn new choreography every session. The control group participated in a conventional sport program that focused mainly on repetitive motor exercises such as bicycling with an ergometer.

After six months of training twice a week, MRI’s showed the volumes in the brain’s left pre-central gyrus of dancers had increased more than those in the control group. After another 12 months of training one time per week additional volume increase was observed in a dancer’s hippocampus. A similar increase was not evident in the sports control group.

The dance and physical exercise groups maintained similar cardiovascular fitness levels over the course of these interventions. As a result, the observed neurological and cognitive improvements in the dancers’ brains could not be attributed to improvements in physical fitness alone but instead by specific features of the dance program.

Dancers produced higher BDNF levels than physical sports group at both 6 and 18 month

Comparison BDNF Levels between dancers and sports group

Dancer’s produced greater BDNF Levels

Specifically, BDNF plasma levels were analyzed before the onset of training as well as after six and 18 months. The BDNF plasma levels are summarized in Table 2.2. The intra-individual changes in BDNF levels revealed a significant increase in the dancing group throughout the experiment. The intra-individual BDNF levels of the sport group were much lower and remained constant after 6 months.

MRI's of the dancers demonstrated precentral gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus development.

MRI’s of the dancers demonstrated precentral gyrus and parahippocampal gyrus development.

MRI

The MRI images measured increased gray matter volume in the left precentral gyrus and the right para-hippocampal gyrus that was typical only in the dancer’s group.

Other Dance Research and Case Studies

Research and professional case studies on dance continue to confirm its many benefits.  Below is list of some of these benefits.

Emotional Wellbeing: Women who received a diagnosis of breast cancer, frequently become overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal by their bodies. The feeling of betrayal is intensified after surgery and subsequent treatments. Gentle movement dance programs have assisted women in not only feeling better physically, but lifting them up emotionally.

Soothing motion calms nervous tension and anxiety while at the same restoring and energizing the mind/body.

Soothing motion calms nervous tension and anxiety while at the same restoring and energizing the mind/body.

Soothing Motion: When we sway it is calming like a baby being rocked by a caregiver or a child on a swing. Miriam Berger, a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University, believe, “As a general rule, moving to music activates the brain’s pleasure circuits. On a physiological and psychological level, humans like order and form, and the rhythm of dancing to music provides that satisfactory patterning.”

Reduced Anxiety: In a study at the University of London, researchers assigned patients with anxiety disorders to spend time in one of four therapeutic settings: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

Elastic Arteries: In an Italian study, Cardiac-rehab patients were enrolled in either waltzing classes or exercise classes. The waltzing patients not only developed more elastic arteries, but they were happier than participants who took up bicycle and treadmill training.

Processing Emotions: The nonverbal language of dance allows people to connect to emotion. Gabrielle Kaufman, a Los Angeles dance therapist, tells this account: “A patient told me how she felt out of control in her life, like a pot on a potter’s wheel, and I said, ‘What a powerful metaphor. Let’s move it’.” As the patient improvised she turned her emotions into motion, “she started to think, ‘Where can I take some control back? How can I build my own vessel, so to speak, the way I want it to be?'” Through the experience of dance the client began to explore how she could gain control of her life.

In keeping with ancestral wisdom women hold hands and dance together creating the bonds of unity and cooperation.

In keeping with ancestral wisdom, women hold hands and dance together creating the bonds of unity and cooperation.

Power of Dance Connection: Miriam Berger, a dance professor and dance therapist at New York University said, “You can change your internal state through external movement.” Dance allows us to unite our thinking minds with our feeling bodies in a way that no other activity can.

In dance we not only connect with the music and motion we connect with other dancers. Dancing creates a fertile ground to experience connection. According to Robyn Flaum Cruz, president of the American Dance Therapy Association. MRI scans show that watching someone dance activates the same neurons in the observer’s brain as if they were doing the dance moves themselves.

Robyn Cruz recalls teaching one particularly memorable class where students started improvising individually, then gradually began moving in sync with each other. “Afterwards,” she says, “all of them described feeling that they were supporting each other, relaxing into the rhythm of being together.”

What dance elicits within the body (serotonin, endorphins, BDNF, neurotransmitters) and outside of the body together allows people to experience themselves in ways they could not do so alone.

One of my favorite quotes explains why inclusive supportive communities emerge in a dance environment: “While I dance I cannot judge, I cannot hate, I cannot separate myself from life. I can only be joyful and whole. That is why I dance.” Author: Hans Bos

Dance, A New Fitness for the 21st Century

There is a need to redefine fitness beyond washboard abs and bulging biceps. Dance provides a deeper kind of fitness providing a surprising range of psychological and physiological benefits. So, whether you are seeking to relax after a stressful day, develop more elastic blood vessels or build a healthier brain scientific studies continue to demonstrate how dance meets the needs of modern society. Consider adding a dance class to your healthy lifestyle.

Check out the revolutionary dance program, Rejuvenating Dance, designed on the results of the latest scientific research plus it guarantees plenty of feel-good serotonin and endorphins.

Follow my blog and glean the wisdom and well being that a healthy lifestyle can impart.

Rejuvenating Lifestyle

Diana-Liz Gallego, Rejuvenating Lifestyle & Rejuvenating Dance

 

Rejuvenating Lifestyle™ website and blog are dedicated to easy, no cost/ low cost and comfortable lifestyle changes that promote health and longevity. Diana-Liz Gallego, founder, is a Functional Medicine Health Coach and a lifelong dancer with a Master of Art Degree in Dance. In addition to writing, she leads Rejuvenating Dance™ sessions and teaches meditation in Dallas, Texas.

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