Anyone who knows me well knows that I LOVE to dance. I don’t mean just dancing at parties or when I’m cooking in the kitchen (although I love that too), I mean all out, joyful, expressive, choreographed dance to loud, rhythmic music. Preferably in a large room with lots of other people who also love to dance. In fact, I can’t think of anything I’d rather spend time doing — and there is nothing else like it in terms of how it makes me feel. As for exercise, it’s my top choice always. And it delivers a wealth of fitness benefits to reward me for that choice. But did you know that dance specifically has been linked with some pretty amazing brain benefits?
A 2003 study investigated the effect leisure activities had on the risk of dementia in the elderly. The researchers looked at the effects of 11 different types of physical activity, including cycling, golf, swimming, and tennis, but found that only one of the activities studied—dance—lowered participants’ risk of dementia. According to the researchers, dancing involves both a mental effort and social interaction and that this combination of stimulation reduces the risk of dementia. Yes!
Another study from 2012, found that the Latin-style dance program known as Zumba improves mood and certain cognitive skills, such as visual recognition and decision-making.
Multiple studies demonstrate the positive impact dance has on the brain. It helps reduce stress, increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, and helps develop new neural connections, especially in regions involved in executive function, long-term memory, and spatial recognition. Dance, in fact, has such beneficial effects on the brain that it is now being used to treat people with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurological movement disorder.
Yes, dancing provides numerous health benefits and so far, is the one form of exercise that has actually been proven to combat dementia. A Columbia University neuroscientist says synchronizing music and movement—dance, essentially—constitutes a “pleasure double play.” Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits. And this “pleasure double play” may be the secret to dance’s myriad of health benefits.
Imaging studies have actually identified specific regions of the brain that contribute to dance learning and performance.
The motor cortex is involved in the planning, control, and execution of voluntary movement.
The somatosensory cortex, located in the mid region of the brain, is responsible for motor control and also plays a role in eye-hand coordination.
The basal ganglia, a group of structures deep in the brain, work with other brain regions to smoothly coordinate movement.
The cerebellum integrates input from the brain and spinal cord and helps in the planning of fine and complex motor actions.
While some imaging studies have shown which regions of the brain are activated by dance, others have explored how the physical and expressive elements of dance alter brain function. For example, much of the research on the benefits of the physical activity associated with dance links with those gained from physical exercise in general.: Benefits like memory improvement and stronger neuronal connections.
If all this piques your interest and you’re thinking you’d like to give dance a try, you have some options. If you live in the Bay Area, you have to check out the Rhythm & Motion Dance program. There are classes in San Francisco, Berkeley, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Richmond Virginia! The company website describes the program as “a come-as-you-are party because we believe that truly, anyone can dance!” If you come to a R & M class you will find a fun, high energy dance-based workout class that welcomes everyone at any ability level. Seriously, this is a fun class and a special community of joyful, welcoming people. It is my “happy place” — my well of positivity. We all could use that. If you don't live in the Bay Area (or Richmond, Virginia) look for a Zumba class. I have been to some Zumba classes when I am traveling that have a strong community vibe that resembles
R & M.
So you might try dance as a new ingredient in your exercise diet. Or you may want to build your brain or boost your physical activity. There are many reasons people take a dance class. But I can guarantee you that you start dancing and you will get much more than what initially brought you to the studio. From a stronger sense of community to greater resilience, less stress and improved cardiovascular fitness, you will find plenty for your “pro dance” column. And these new studies linking brain health and dance are pretty exciting for big-picture health. The bottom line is that dance deliveries both long term and short term benefits. Personally, I like knowing that just by doing something I love, I'm doing something good for myself. Cha cha cha.