“Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we’re here we should dance!” - Anonymous
While all that shimmying on the dance floor sounds like a lot of fun, dancing also carries significant health benefits for your body as well as mind. Regular dancing can help you burn calories, improve muscle strength and endurance, maintain healthy bones and beat stress.
And like most physical exercises, regular spins on the dance floor may also reduce your risk of developing heart disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes.
But dancing has much more to offer beyond these obvious physical benefits. It is great for your brain health too. In fact, for many, dancing is nothing less than meditation, an activity that can calm your mind and fill it with positive thoughts. Dance has such a power on your physical, mental and emotional health because it is believed to connect your body, mind and soul.
In this blog post, we are going to explore how dancing has a positive effect on your brain health and how it can improve mental functions. Recent research highlights that dancing can protect the brain from age-related decline, improve the quality of life in the elderly and make adolescents feel better about their health and themselves. Studies have found that dancing can even improve mobility and depression symptoms in individuals with Parkinson’s.
Better yet, dancing is a lot more enjoyable and engaging than your typical monotonous exercise programs. As a result, you are more likely to stick to a dance routine to stay active and be fit. And you are motivated to do it for longer.
Dancing and brain health
Dancing is a combination of physical, cognitive and social elements that work together on many levels to bring you all kinds of health benefits, including cognitive ones.
1. Protects your brain from the effects of aging
Aging causes loss of brain volumes, leading to reduced cognitive functions. Can dancing protect against this age-related decline in the brain? It appears that dancing can help reverse signs of ageing. It has something to do with how dancing can powerfully impact neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and grow throughout life.
Every time you learn something new – be it a new language, a new dance form or a musical instrument – the structure of your brain changes. Every new experience, new skill and even new thoughts can create new brain cells and form new neural pathways.
By making new neural connections and by pruning ones that are not important or used any more, your brain keeps rewiring itself to adapt to changing environments, new memories and new experiences.
As we age, we tend to become more fixed in our thinking and behaviour. This leads to loss of brain cells and neural connections. Previously, it was believed that your brain loses its ability to reshape or rewire itself as you grow old. However, new research tells us that aging brain is very much capable of remodeling itself. All you need to do is to give your brain enough stimulation to create new neural connections by having new experiences and learning something new, like a dance form.
A recent 2018 study examined the effects of a specially designed dance program on the brain structure and function in a group of healthy elderly. One group of participants was assigned to a dance program that involved new choreographies and complex movement patterns that presented the participants with constant learning challenges. Another group was assigned to a standard fitness training program that involved repetitive activities.
The study found that:
- People in dance program had larger volume increase (both gray and white matter) in parts of the brain that are involved with working memory, executive functions, attention and other cognitive functions.
- Six months of dance training resulted in an increased gray matter volume in the part of the brain that is associated with memory. This same part deteriorates early in Alzheimer’s disease.
Another study published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, shows that dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain. Age-related decline in brain causes impaired cognitive functions and poor balance. The study showed that while both dancing and endurance training can reverse the signs of ageing in the brain, dancing was more effective in doing so.
Both these activities increased the gray matter in the hippocampus – the part of brain that controls long-term memory, learning, spatial navigation and balance. But this increase was observed more in the dancers, who also showed noticeable improvement in their balance. The researchers concluded that this difference was due to the additional challenge presented by constantly changing dancing routines. 
According to Dr Rehfeld, the lead author of the study "I believe that everybody would like to live an independent and healthy life, for as long as possible. Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline. I think dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age." 
2. Dancing and Parkinson’s Disease
Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder where there is a loss in brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical messenger that sends signals from one nerve cell in the brain to another. Dopamine is one of the most important neurotransmitters that regulate many important functions in the body such as movement, speech, memory, mood, learning, motivation, reward, cognition and more. Symptoms of Parkinson’s include tremors, muscle stiffness, balance and co-ordination problems and slowed movements (bradykinesia).
Parkinson’s affect both motor (related to movement) and non-motor skills. Besides loss of movement and poor balance, patients with this disorder can also experience sleep problems, depression, memory problems and impaired cognitive abilities, which can lead to poor quality of life. In addition, muscle stiffness and balance problems increase one’s risk of falls. Studies show that engaging in physical exercise can help improve muscle strength, balance and overall quality of life. But the problem is that exercise programs are not engaging enough and don’t quite motivate the patients to participate on a regular basis, often leading to drop outs.
Studies show that dancing can help Parkinson’s patients by improving a number of parameters, such as:    
- Functional mobility
- Ability to do day to day activities
- Quality of life of patients as well as caregivers
- Severity of both motor and non-motor symptoms
- Limb rigidity, fine motor skills and facial expression
3. Dance reduces stress
Like all physical activities, dance too stimulates the body to release endorphins, that do a lot of positive things in the body:
- Reduce pain
- Reduce stress
- Boost self-esteem
- Trigger positive feelings
- Improve quality of sleep
- Improve sense of well-being
- Help you feel relaxed and optimistic
Studies show that dancing can instil positive thoughts and confidence in young adolescent girls with internalizing problems, where children tend to direct their emotions inward. Recent research has found that young girls today are more at risk of developing psychological health problems. Girls with internalizing problems often have symptoms such as depressed mood, low self-esteem, anxiety, nervousness.
They also complain of physical symptoms such as headache, fatigue and stomach ache.
A 2016 study showed that dancing can give rise of positive feelings in young girls with internalizing problems. 
- Experience freedom
- Increased feelings of trust in their abilities
- Increased ability to approach life with openness and confidence
4. Dance may protect against dementia
Dementia develops with loss of cognitive functions such as thinking, memory, problem solving, reasoning and paying attention. This happens when neurons lose connections with each other and stop communicating. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia in the elderly.
A 21-year study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that leisure activities reduce the risk of dementia – both for Alzheimer's disease and for vascular dementia. 
The researchers examined the role of both cognitive and physical activities such as reading, dancing, doing cross word puzzles, swimming, bicycling and playing golf. It reported that reading, playing board games, playing musical instruments, and dancing reduced the risk of dementia. Interestingly, dancing fared better than other cognitive activities in lowering this risk. Dancing involves several brain functions (music, learning new steps, emotions and physical touch) simultaneously and generates new neural connections.
Other health benefits of dancing
In addition to the benefits to mental health, dancing offers incredible benefits to your physical health too.
- Improves energy levels
- Reduces risk of heart disease
- Helps lose weight and prevents obesity
- Improves muscle strength, flexibility, endurance and balance
- Helps maintain stronger bones and reduces risk of osteoporosis
- Rehfeld et al. Dance training is superior to repetitive physical exercise in inducing brain plasticity in the elderly. PLoS. 2018.
- Frontiers. "Dancing can reverse the signs of aging in the brain." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 25 August 2017.
- Rehfeld et al. Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2017.
- Delabary et al. Effects of dance practice on functional mobility, motor symptoms and quality of life in people with Parkinson's disease: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Aging Clin Exp Res. 2018
- Duncan et al. Are the effects of community-based dance on Parkinson disease severity, balance, and functional mobility reduced with time? A 2-year prospective pilot study. J Altern Complement Med. 2014
- Heiberger et al. Impact of a weekly dance class on the functional mobility and on the quality of life of individuals with Parkinson's disease. Front Aging Neurosci. 2011
- Blandy et al. Therapeutic Argentine tango dancing for people with mild Parkinson’s disease: a feasibility study. Front. Aging Neurosci. 2015
- Duberg et al. “I feel free”: Experiences of a dance intervention for adolescent girls with internalizing problems. Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2016
- Duberg et al. Influencing Self-rated Health Among Adolescent Girls With Dance Intervention. JAMA. 2013
- Verghese et al. Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. N Engl J Med 2003