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Lily Sarafan


What the Cha-Cha Can do for Your Health

Posted: 11/16/2012 11:17 am

It is a well-established fact that exercise is linked to an overall sense of well-being with clear physical and mental benefits. One particularly enjoyable form of exercise that can be adapted for all ability levels is dance.

Evidence suggests that dancing not only enhances flexibility and balance but also aerobic power (and thus, cardiovascular health) and lower body muscle endurance, as it is a weight-bearing exercise. It is also less stressful on the joints than other forms of exercise.

For older adults in particular, dancing can help prevent the loss of muscle strength and bone density. These effects combined with improvements in balance reduce the risk of falls, the leading cause of death by injury and the most common cause of nonfatal injuries and hospital admissions in older adults.

In addition to its physical benefits, dancing also promotes psychological and mental well-being. Performing movements in sync with music requires cognitive processing, stimulating the mind. Moreover, dancing generally occurs in group settings, offering a sense of community and fostering relationships, both old and new. Social ties -- our connections to other people -- provide emotional support, reducing depression, loneliness and stress levels.

Overall, dancing touches on many factors important to promoting the highest quality of life.

The benefits of dancing are most evident in studies investigating its impact on various conditions including Type 2 diabetes, Parkinson's and dementia, all prominent diseases in the senior population. These studies are based on the "dance therapy movement" which has roots in the post-Second World War setting. Marian Chace taught classes to WWII vets in the psychiatric unit at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in DC and went on to found the American Dance Therapy Association in 1966, an organization still in existence today. Recent studies have produced statistical evidence for the benefits of dance.

In 2009, Carolyn Murrock, RN, PhD, and her colleagues conducted a pilot study investigating the effects of dancing on diabetes. They found that dancing twice a week for 12 weeks significantly reduced blood pressure, body fat and weight in African American women with diabetes. Thus dancing with peers appears to be an effective strategy to improve diabetes outcomes and overall health. Another study published in February 2012 found a strong, positive correlation between dancing and short- and long-term symptom improvement in individuals with Parkinson's disease. The Argentine tango in particular was linked to improvements in range of motion, gait, balance, hand movements and rigidity of facial muscles.

A pilot study conducted in Korea in 2011 looked at the effects of dance on cognitive function in elderly patients with metabolic syndrome, a condition correlated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. In particular, the group that practiced the Cha-Cha twice a week for six months performed better on various tests of cognitive function than the control group.

Another study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that regular dancing was associated with a reduced risk of dementia. As dementia affects millions of seniors in the United States and Canada, potential early interventions to improve quality of life are critical.

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  • Yoga

    Yoga offers a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/deepak-chopra/yoga-heart-health_b_900621.html" target="_hplink">myriad of wellness benefits:</a> flexibility, balance, centeredness, strength, mindfulness and others. Yoga is a great option for aging bodies, as it promotes working within your own comfort zone. Postures and sequences range from gentle and relaxing to more intensive for advanced yogis.

  • Stretching

    Another way to promote flexibility and overall health is incorporating some simple stretches into your daily routine, be it at home, at the gym or even outdoors. Stretching prevents injury, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/yoga-stretching-back-pain_n_1029014.html" target="_hplink">can relieve back pain</a> and boosts energy. Note: It's important to stretch properly to avoid injury. Check out some good <a href="http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/healthtool-basic-stretches" target="_hplink">examples of stretches here</a> and these <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/08/stretching-mistakes_n_892444.html#s304603&title=Not_Doing_It" target="_hplink">common stretching mistakes</a>.

  • Biking

    Biking is a great low-impact, cardiovascular workout, not to mention it's a lot of fun. There are a few ways to incorporate biking into your routine. Joy rides in your free time are always a good option -- alone or with a group. You could consider joining a local bike group or riding to nearby destinations instead of taking the car. <a href="http://www.livestrong.com/article/456032-stationary-bikes-and-health-benefits/" target="_hplink">Stationary bikes</a> also have great health benefits. Already a cycler? Here's how to get <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/30/6-ways-to-get-more-benefi_n_868670.html#s285033&title=Get_in_tune" target="_hplink">more benefit from your bike ride</a>.

  • Brisk Walks

    One of the most <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/walking/HQ01612" target="_hplink">beneficial exercises</a> is something humans have been doing for centuries: walking. Simple modifications to your routine, like parking further away and walking the extra distance or taking the stairs instead of the elevator, can really add up to boost your overall health. For an even greater benefit, take brisk walks that get your heart rate up.

  • Pilates

    <a href="http://pilates.about.com/od/whatispilates/a/WhatIsPilates.htm" target="_hplink">Pilates</a> is another low-impact exercise that's ideal for aging bodies. It's similar to yoga but puts more emphasis on gaining control and balance of the body by strengthening the core muscles. Pilates can be done in a class or at home with a video or other guide. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/paola-bassanese/keep-fit-with-classical-p_b_987756.html" target="_hplink">This piece</a> offers a great run-down of the activity, along with images of some classic pilates stretches and workouts.

  • Tennis

    Tennis is a classic sport, well-loved for being fun and <a href="http://my.clevelandclinic.org/heart/prevention/exercise/tennis.aspx" target="_hplink">great for you</a>. It's a strong aerobic workout and helps keep you agile, especially important as you get older. Tennis is also a very social activity -- great for the body, mind and spirit!

  • Swimming

    Swimming is easy on the body and is also one of the most comprehensive workouts, hitting <a href="http://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/guide/fitness-basics-swimming-is-for-everyone" target="_hplink">all the major muscle groups</a>: shoulders, back, abdominals, legs, hips and glutes. If you're getting serious about swimming, it's important to learn proper techniques, but even free-styling in the local pool or outdoors in the summer is a great way to exercise.

  • Dance

    Dancing is one of those activities that doesn't feel like working out, but is an incredible <a href="http://www.livestrong.com/article/91589-fitness-benefits-dance/" target="_hplink">aerobic exercise</a>. It's a good option for those that want more physical activity but don't like the gym or in the winter when it's harder to get outdoors. There are a bunch of styles to choose from: ballroom dancing, contra dancing, salsa, ballet, tap, country and others.

  • Elliptical

    As the body ages, running and jogging can take a toll on the joints, knees or back and potentially cause injury. An elliptical cross-training machine is an alternative to running, which still gets your heart rate up but at a <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/elliptical-machines/AN01620" target="_hplink">lower impact</a>.

  • Strengthening Exercises

    You can take a simple walk to the next level by bringing weights along to build strength in your arms and boost the cardio benefits. Strength-building techniques like pushups, squats and lunges are easy to do at home or can be squeezed into buckets of free time throughout the day.