You Should be Dancing!

By Paul Hunter

New year, new goals, right?  How do you choose your goals?  Often in the new year, we focus on the physical aspects of our lives.  Why not enhance your goals with learning a new skill, causing a positive impact on your brain as well?  Having graduated from a college whose main focus is the holistic balance between spirit, mind and body, I rather like this idea.

As we age, our brains trend towards processing more slowly, meaning how rapidly our brains are able to absorb, assess and respond to new information slows down.  If you are over 40 and reading this, it may be taking you longer to process the world around you.  What causes this slowdown has been shown to be a naturally occurring “fraying” of our brain’s wiring or “white matter.”  Is this degeneration avoidable or reversible?  Maybe, with the right stimulus.

There is some good news.  Earlier this year, there was a study performed by a group of researchers from the University of Illinois, et. al. that explored the link between physical activity and neurological benefits.  What they found was we may not be doing enough of the best things.   

Eating well:        check

Drinking water:        check

Walking:         check

Weight Training:    check

Social Dancing:        wait, what?

One hundred seventy-four healthy people in their 60s and 70s with no cognitive impairments were recruited to participate in a study whereby they were brought through a series of initial tests to establish a baseline.  This baseline testing included markers and university lab testing involving a sophisticated brain scan MRI, processing speeds, aerobic capacity and mental capacities.  

They were then randomly divided into three groups:

1.    Supervised brisk walking program involving 1 hour of walking 3 times weekly

2.    Gentle stretching and balancing 3 times weekly

3.    The “Learn to Dance” group.  Progressively more difficult and intricate country-dance choreography for 1 hour 3 times weekly.

After six months, the same brain scans and testing from the beginning were repeated.  So, what did they discover?  Not surprisingly, there was continued thinning of the size and numbers of connections between the neurons in the brain (“white matter degeneration”), subtle, but there, most notably in the oldest volunteers.  

Wait… What is this?  Compared to testing six months prior, in one group there was some actual improvement in areas of the brain containing the white matter.  The DANCING group showed an increased density of their white matter, even showing improvements in cognitive performance. 

What is the takeaway from this?  Get moving and challenge yourself physically AND mentally.  Social dancing places physical demands and encourages social interaction that can improve our daily functioning.  Dr. Burzynska, the study’s lead author and professor of human development and neuroscience from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado states “any activities involving moving and socializing” might spruce up mental abilities in our brains as we age.  She also found that those who came into the study already exercising showed the least decline in their white matter.

Whether this pertains to you or a loved one and you have or have not been “exercising,” it is never too late to start or encourage those around you to do so.  Most people know where the local gym is, but how about dancing opportunities?  A quick internet search for “dancing instruction near me” brings up over 10 locations for fun and learning the art of dance.  

Personally, my wife and I have been attending Fred Astaire in Fort Walton Beach for over a year now and I although we have more than a decade to reach our 60s, I can attest to the benefits of participating in ballroom dancing.  Overall, there has been improvements in the area of reaction times, balance, learning and coordination.  I have noticed it is not just the learning of the dance moves, style or techniques, but the social interaction of dancing with the group that has benefitted not just me but the other participants.  

Get out, get moving and…

Make it a Great Day!