Dance over exercise for brain health

A new study, published in the Frontiers neuroscience journal, has found that learning to dance helped older people combat cognitive decline and improved their balance at a greater rate than simply physical exercise. The well-known adage is ‘use it or lose it’ however it is interesting to note that dance is ranked higher than just exercise in terms of benefitting body and mind. The study was undertaken by neuroscientists showing dance to improve brain health.

The study took a group of 26 volunteers aged in their late 60s and split them into two groups, each taking on separate exercises over an 18-month period of either weekly dance classes or endurance and flexibility workouts to combat the effects of ageing on the brain. Although previous research demonstrates that physical exercise is an effective anti-ageing tool, this new study shows how dance is therefore particularly effective in this area. It could be the challenge of learning dance routines that is helpful in combating cognitive decline.

We know that exercise has the effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity, and the study takes that further and shows that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that led to noticeable behavioural changes, in terms of improved balance.

While the dance classes involved volunteers learning a new dance routine every week, including Line Dance, Latin American dance and Jazz, the traditional fitness group carried out repetitive workouts, such as cycling or walking. Members from both groups displayed volume increases in a key area of the brain related to memory and learning, also severely affected by Alzheimer’s. However, the research found that the dance group, who were tasked with remembering several new dance moves under time pressure, displayed an additional improvement in their balance.

The discovery has to a new programme called “Jymmin”, a combination of jamming and gymnastics, which is hoped to help combat the effects of ageing on the brain.