Sensational Living®

December 2003
© 2003 by Bret S. Beall

Dancing the Night Away!

Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved to dance! That doesn’t mean I was very good at it, but my enthusiasm compensated for any lack of skill. Now, my skill has caught up with my enthusiasm, as has my knowledge of the health benefits, both physical and psychological/emotional, of dancing! Because physical health and mental health are intimately connected, I make no effort to categorize the topics below. Read on, please!

The most obvious benefit of dancing is the pure physical exercise. Witness the various marketing efforts of Jazzercise, “Dancin’ to the Oldies,” and others. The benefits can be broken down into several discrete categories:

Weight Loss: Calculations vary based on dance styles and the dancer’s weight/physiology, but different kinds of dancing can burn from 150 to 500 calories per hour. While few people dance for an hour at a time, the calories burned are cumulative. Be forewarned, because much dancing occurs in bars, that the consumption of calorie-laden alcoholic beverages and soft drinks can offset the gains achieved by dancing.

Muscle Strengthening: If you are doing vigorous dancing, using all parts of your body, you can accomplish part of the value of a gym workout. Leg muscles are particularly exercised, and thus strengthened, while dancing, especially if you flex you legs just slightly (this also saves wear and tear on the knees). Twisting your body and gesturing with your arms can strengthen those parts of your body as well. But please, remember to warm up before rigorous dancing, and start slowly if you are not accustomed to extensive dancing.

Bone Strengthening: When muscles are strengthened, they increase the stress and strain on the bones when they contract, which in turn sends a message to the body to strengthen the bones in order to withstand the stress and strain. This is an important cause-effect relationship, because it provides a mechanism for offsetting the effects of osteoporosis (any kind of gentle exercise, coupled with a calcium-rich diet, will help, but dancing is just more fun than some other kinds of exercise).

Heart and Lung Strengthening: Use of the muscles increases demand on the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems, because muscles need oxygen to function, and the heart pumps the blood (which carries the oxygen from the lungs) to the muscles throughout the body. With continually increasing usage, the heart and lungs are strengthened, and their function becomes more efficient, leading to lower blood pressure and heart rate. All exercise, including dancing, works to reduce cholesterol levels, which also leads to lower blood pressure and heart rate. Dancing is a great addition to your existing exercise regime, but be sure to monitor your breathing and general condition in case of fatigue.

Dancing has other health benefits:

Disease Fighting: Follow this argument carefully, as it is a bit complex, but I can vouch for its validity. When we are stressed, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) sends message to release adrenalin (epinephrine) and cortisol. These chemicals prepare our body to experience “fight or flight” in emergencies, which is how stress is perceived by the brain. In turn, these chemicals also reduce our body’s disease-fighting abilities. When we dance, we relax, and our body flushes these chemicals, thus bolstering our body’s ability to fight diseases. Although this is purely anecdotal, I recall one evening that I felt a cold coming on: my throat was scratchy, my head was aching, and my muscles were tight. I had already promised a friend I would go out dancing with her, and though I wanted to cancel, I don’t like to break promises. We danced and drank and laughed and had a fantastic time, and the next morning, I felt like a million dollars, without any trace of a bug. So, if you are feeling lousy, just go dancing!

Endorphins and Enjoyment: Here we have a chicken-egg scenario: Which came first? When we are happy, we produce more endorphins (natural pain killers, like opioids) which, in turn, keep us happy. But, if we aren’t actually feeling happy to begin with, can we artificially stimulate the production of endorphins? You bet! Most of the research deals with the benefits of laughter, but it can be logically transferred to dancing. Force yourself to listen to music. Force yourself to move to the rhythm. Force yourself to laugh and dance. You may be moping about it at first, perhaps even angry that this is necessary. Gradually, oh so gradually, endorphins will start flooding your brain, and you will start to get that feeling of general well-being. From there, it is smooth sailing (but please take some try to figure out why you were feeling not-so-happy in the first place).

General Physical Well-Being: As I have bragged in previous columns, I have always been blessed with excellent health, so when something goes wrong, it gets my attention. A combination of eating something I shouldn't have, increased heat (and therefore, more evapo-transpiration), increased exposure to the dehydrating effects of AC, and no increase in fluid intake led to some “plumbing” problems. Although some external assistance was needed, the full-body exercise/movement provided by intentional “extreme” dancing helped me get back to my usual perky self in record time.

Mental Activity: A somewhat controversial study from the Albert Einstein Center (Bronx, NY) suggests that, based on an analysis of 500 American senior citizens (60 and above) who regularly attended dance classes, dancing reduces mental deterioration (due to Alzheimer’s and other similar diseases), and increases mental stimulation. While it is incontrovertible that mental activity slows down the effects of Alzheimer’s, the research regarding the degree to which dancing represents significant mental activity is inconclusive. Certainly, dances requiring complex choreography (such as square-dancing, ballet, tango, even contemporary jazz) require increased mental activity, so let those be your dances of choice.

Sociality: The Albert Einstein Center study mentioned above also emphasized the increased value of dancing in a social atmosphere versus solitary exercise or inactivity. “Sociality” is a rather ambiguous word that has numerous meanings, contexts, denotations and connotations. It implies friendship, appreciation, respect, camaraderie and love. In turn, these imply self-esteem, discipline, energy levels, general outlook, and more. Increase sociality, as generally required by dancing, feeds each of these emotions and feelings positively: self-esteem increases, personal discipline is enhanced; energy levels rise, and we have an improved overall outlook. There is some anecdotal evidence that dancing will work to increased musicality (I know that dancing helped me develop rhythm! Oh, the memories of public flailing are painful! LOL!). Research is just becoming available about the physical benefits of social interaction, but the upshot is that any activity that improves relationships and interaction is good for our bodies. Therefore, the social aspects of dancing are good for our bodies as well as our minds.

When one finds connectivity and commonality between apparently disparate concepts, this sort of consistency can be cited as evidence for the connection being correct. As far as I can tell, there are no downsides to dancing (if done in moderation, and without the excessive influx of some of the chemicals associated with public dancing [alcohol, nicotine, and various less-than-legal substances]). This time of year, we have the opportunity to attend many parties and social events. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed, or less than eager to attend a party. Force yourself. Look at all of the above health benefits. If you feel too busy, take a close look at the causality of THAT feeling, and don’t use it as an excuse to further hurt yourself (when we are overwhelmed, we are stressed, and our bodies suffer). Dancing makes us feel better!

Start dancing regularly in December, then make it a New Year’s resolution to “Dance the Night Away” throughout the new year!