For those of us old enough to remember the popular TV program "American Bandstand," dancing has always seemed like a fun social activity. And even now, when "Dancing with the Stars" is a hit network show, few people think of dancing as an easy way for seniors to stay healthy and avoid health problems. But the truth is, as far back as the 1940s, dancing has been proven to be both a natural form of communication and a way to improve physical and mental well-being.
We all know that dancing is a great way for our bodies to get needed exercise, but a 2003 study funded by the National Institute on Aging, led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that it can also build better brain function and even reduce the chances of developing Alzheimer's disease. When a group of seniors over age 75 were followed to see which activity offered the most benefits — bicycling, crossword puzzles, dancing, housework, golf, playing cards, playing musical instruments, reading books, swimming, tennis, walking, writing for pleasure — the seniors who danced were 76% less likely to develop dementia.
Dancing has also been shown to help older adults lower their use of pain medication. A Saint Louis University study of participants with the average age of 80 found that those who danced decreased their use of painkillers by 39% and those who didn't dance took 21% more pain medication. The sessions lasted for 45 minutes and were held up to two times a week using a dance therapy program called "Healthy-Steps." Designed to improve both flexibility and strength during physical and occupational therapy sessions, the program was an aerobic, low-impact, rhythmic and slow activity that could be done either sitting or standing.
According to Dr. Jean Krampe, associate professor at St. Louis University School of Nursing, those who began a regular dance program were also able to increase their walking speed, which is important for seniors — especially those who have arthritis or pain in their lower limbs — because gait speed can affect a senior's likelihood of falling, being hospitalized or becoming dependent on others for daily activities.
If being able to walk faster isn't enough to convince you that dancing is the perfect form of exercise for mature adults, it's also been proven, according to a study published in the Circulation journal, that waltzing as a form of exercise provides measurable aerobic health benefits. And the journal Gerontology has reported that older adults who participated in an eight-week salsa dancing program had improved balance and strength. Plus, Australian researchers discovered that those who participated in a two-week tango dance program left feeling less depressed and experiencing lower levels of anxiety, insomnia and stress.
If dance therapy were to have a patron saint, it would be Marian Chace, who injured her back in a diving accident in the early 1900s and used dance to help her recover. From then on, she devoted her life to using dance as a way to help patients nonverbally express problematic emotions.
Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at www.marilynwillison.com. To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: ArtTower at Pixabay