Dance more, age less

Get happy feet, people. A new study shows that older people who exercise can reverse aging in the brain. And best of all, dancing has the biggest effect.

Said lead author Kathrin Rehfeld: “Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity…. In this study, we show 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 lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”

Volunteers (average age 68) were assigned either an 18-month weekly course of endurance and flexibility training, or a comparable amount of learning dance routines. The traditional training program consisted of repetitive exercises like cycling and Nordic walking, but the dance group wwas challenged with something new each week.


In both groups, volunteers’ brains showed growth in the hippocampus region, key to memory, learning and balance. The hippocampus is prone to age-related decline and is especially hard hit by conditions like Alzheimer’s.

“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance),” Rehfeld said. “Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”

The researchers reckon it was these extra challenges that led to a noticeable improvement in balance in the dance group compared to the traditional training cohort. They are now working to develop new fitness programs that take advantage of this insight. “We are evaluating a new system called ‘Jymmin’ (jamming and gymnastic),” Rehfeld said. “This is a sensor-based system which generates sounds (melodies, rhythm) based on physical activity. We know that dementia patients react strongly when listening to music. We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients.”

“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.” The study was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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