Why dancing is so effective for slowing down age-related decline

exercise and aging

At a certain point in our lives all of us develop a negative relationship with the mirror on the wall. It just keeps showing too many lines, too many grey hairs and sagging stuff everywhere.

I know quite a few people who end up refusing to face the mirror for any reason whatever!

But we don’t all have to resort to such drastic measures, because there is something simple and enjoyable you can do to slow down the clock.

As we grow older we suffer a decline in mental and physical fitness, which can be made worse by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. And we are constantly reminded of the various health benefits of keeping physically active.

A new study, published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, shows that older people who routinely do physical exercise can reverse the signs of aging in the brain, and dancing as a form of exercise is the most effective.

exercise and aging

Why dancing is such an effective exercise for the brain

“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany.

“In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”

exercise and aging

This difference is attributed to the extra challenge of learning dancing routines.

The researchers invited 62 healthy elderly volunteers aged 63–80 years to join the study and eventually chose 52 who met their inclusion criteria. They were then randomly assigned to the experimental dance group and the control sport group.

The content of the dance classes induced a permanent learning situation with constantly changing choreographies, which participants had to memorize accurately.

The program for the sport group included endurance training, strength-endurance training, and flexibility training.

Both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain, the area of the brain specifically prone to age-related decline. It also plays a key role in memory and learning, as well as keeping one’s balance. But only participants in the dance group showed volume increases in more subfields of the left hippocampus and only dancing led to an increase in one subfield of the right hippocampus, namely the subiculum.

While scientists know that physical exercise can combat age-related brain decline, this study shows that dancing, specifically continuously changing dance routines and choreography, is superior to repetitive exercise like cycling or walking.

Dr Rehfeld explains, “We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”

exercise and aging

Dr Rehfeld and her colleagues are building on this research to develop new fitness programs that can have the maximum anti-aging effects on the brain.

Dancing for the rhythmically challenged

What about those of us who have two left feet and no sense of rhythm?

Instead of focusing on how awkward you might be looking, just lose yourself in the music. Music alone has many therapeutic benefits. Just listening to music lift our spirits and if you can manage to lift your backside as well, so much the better!

Dr Rehfeld advises:

“I believe that everybody would like to live an independent and healthy life, for as long as possible. Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline. I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.”

If you need some inspiration, have look at this video of Nellia (64) and Dietmar Ehrentraut (70). This couple from Germany are doing some dance moves that will have you gasping for breath.

YouTube video


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Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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