RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—You may not be as agile as some of the professionals on Dancing with the Stars (or as clumsy as some of the celebrities). But as long as you can pull off a simple foxtrot, you can dance your way to a healthier life over the years, according to a paper presented recently at a conference on aging at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
THE DETAILS: Jonathan Skinner, PhD, an anthropologist from Queen’s University and Ireland’s Changing Ageing Partnership, conducted interviews with retired adults at dancing centers in Belfast; Blackpool, England; and Sacramento, California. He found communities of dancers who had developed close social networks, including dancers who continued despite losing the friends who had inspired them in the first place and others who couldn’t walk without the aid of a cane but somehow still could dance easily, cane-free, across a ballroom floor. “[Dancing] quite literally fires off the endorphins and takes away the aches, pains, and disabilities associated with old age,” Skinner explains.
WHAT IT MEANS: Skinner’s research isn’t the first to link dancing to physical and emotional benefits for older adults. A 2003 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the mental challenges involved in learning new dances ward off dementia. Another study published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure found that patients with stable chronic heart failure experienced small improvements in cardiac health after waltzing for 30 minutes, three times a week. Plus, “In terms of socialization, dancing is a great way to get people of all ages interacting with each other,” says Pete McCall, an exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise.
If you’re feeling inspired to put on your dancing shoes, here are a few ways to start moving.
• Try to fit in 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week. Like most exercise, it helps to dance consistently to maximize its physical benefits. “If you’re dancing three times a week, try to also spend 3 to 4 days a week walking, swimming, or doing some other movement-based activity,” says McCall.
• Consider your other health conditions. There aren’t many preexisting conditions that would prevent you from dancing, says McCall, with the exceptions of arthritis or osteoarthritis. But even those can improve with dance. “Arthritis gets worse with the less movement you do,” he says. “If you maintain movement over a consistent period, there may be some discomfort but not as much as if you stop movement completely.” He adds that dancing is great if you have osteoporosis, since weight-bearing exercise actually strengthens bones and makes them thicker and denser.
• Find a dance class nearby. Skinner’s study noted that many older adults found dance clubs they liked in towns far from home and made weekend trips to dance their hearts away. But chances are you have a community center or gym nearby that offers classes for all ages. The American Council on Exercise has partnered with AARP to provide its members with access to specially trained fitness professionals in their areas. You can find one by logging onto AARP’s website.