Put on your boogie shoes — your brain will thank you

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

I'm a fan of dancing. I've been known to bust a move in bars, at weddings, in school musicals and during obligatory dance breaks at college football games. But one thing I actively tried to avoid at all costs was dance workout classes — until recently.

There was something completely unappealing to me about dancing in a place that was well lit and full of mirrors where I'd have to watch myself flail around, definitely screwing up whatever Zumba moves the teacher was trying to show us. But one day earlier this summer I forgot to sign up for a spin class early enough and was left with just one group class option that night: a pop music-themed dance workout. I went, and long story short, I've gone back just about every week since.

Sure, the floor to ceiling mirrors are horrifying to catch myself in. And the fact that my gym's studio has huge windows that look out onto a busy street doesn't exactly help the self esteem. But it's a goofy, fun way to get some exercise in and, according to a recent study, may help protect my brain and improve my mood as I get older.

A team of German researchers studied how two different exercise programs — one dance based, the other based on endurance and flexibility training — influenced a group of seniors.

Their findings, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that both workouts increased the area of the brain that typically declines with age. But out of the two, only the dance workout led to improvements in balance and behavior. Participants in the dance program also got to try different genres of dance, from square and line dancing to jazz and Latin American styles.

“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres,” researcher Kathrin Rehfeld with the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said in a press release published last week. “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."

Next up, Rehfeld and her colleagues are using the findings of their study to build a new fitness program that combines dance and the positive aspects of music on older adults with dementia. The sensor-based system would create sounds and melodies based on the dancer's physical activities.

“We know that dementia patients react strongly when listening to music,” Rehfeld said. “We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients.”

Sounds like a promising program that's worth busting a groove about.

Follow Staff Writer Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.