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The Science of Why You Should Get Off The Couch And Dance

March 05, 2020 Relmi Damiano

A lot of us live sedentary lives, too connected to technology and obsessed with long working hours. We collect so much stress and unhealthy tension in our bodies and minds. When we are done with work for the day, many of us sit again in front of the TV, our phones and laptops watching Netflix and YouTube for hours on end, putting more pressure on our spines and necks. Diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s, auto-immune illnesses, chronic fatigue and various mental illnesses are becoming so prevalent in our modern world. ALL of this can be totally prevented with a more active lifestyle!

The Science of Why You Should Get Off The Couch And Dance5

When we park our bodies on the couch, we simply justify to ourselves that we are tired and need to rest. This might be true, and getting rest is very important. However, MUST we watch 3 - 5 hours of TV most nights of the week after having slaved away in front of the screen all day? Our bodies were designed to move, and we are losing this because of the modern comforts surrounding us.

Some alarming statistics from around the world include:

  • An average adult in American sits for around 6.5 hours per day1
  • In Mexico, adults reported sitting nearly 4 hours per day in a recent study2
  • Older people (over 60) in the United Kingdom may sit 9 or more hours per day3
  • Nearly 70% of Australians are classified as having low levels of physical activity or being sedentary4

I was guilty of this for many years, binge-watching a plethora of shows that are now easily available at our fingertips. I know for a fact this was one of the culprits for my back pain. Everything in moderation! It’s fine to have a night in and do this every now and then, but I find this has become the norm for a lot of people I speak to. 

You just need to push past that first hurdle (which is the hardest), get off the couch and find another evening activity that will keep you active for a few hours. If you have never done it or if you have taken a big break from exercise, that is ok. Just get started again today; do not wait! There is no better time than NOW. It doesn't matter what it is. Just do it.

Know that it will be hard at first, and you may feel resistance from your mind, but it’ll become easier the more you do it. Your brain is plastic and it WILL change. The most important thing is that you find a form of exercise that makes you happy and is entertaining, so you have a better chance of sticking with it. For me, it was dancing. You can read more about my story of ‘How Dancing Changed My Mental And Physical Health’ here.

Considering Dance as a Form of Exercise

What are some of the changes you can look forward to when incorporating dance into your lifestyle? Even people who have not spent years or decades dancing can see drastic differences to their physical health, including:5

  • Weight loss. Ballet can burn an enormous number of calories, up to 430 or so per hour. Slower forms of dance like waltzing still burn around 215 calories an hour.
  • Coordination and balance. Any form of dance can help improve your balance and coordination, but some do more than others. Dancing as a group means learning to coordinate, and the Argentinian tango involves leg kicks and twists, helping you practice keeping balance. 
  • Muscle tone. Dancing works many muscle groups, especially if there are arm movements. Improved muscle tone also means better posture and increased stamina. 

But, your brain also reaps the benefits of dancing. A great deal of research has centred around brain plasticity and dancing. Plasticity is the amazing capacity of the brain to create new pathways in response to what we learn and are exposed to. Dancing unites sound and movement, and it requires a lot of brain power, which is a good thing! Dancing has been shown to strengthen the link between the cerebral hemisphere and dance practice has also been shown to modify white and grey matter in different parts of the brain.6

There are so many studies that prove body movement restores energy, among hundreds of benefits. When we dance, more endorphins are released compared to other types of exercise. Dancing can provide a cathartic moment for many, allowing an emotional release which purges the body and reinvigorates the emotional centres of our brains.

Moving with others may have some really cool bonus effects on our self-esteem, too. In a recent study, when people synchronised their movements with someone else they reported higher self-esteem.8 When you dance with a group of people, you will feel the energy and maybe even a boost to your confidence! 

Similar to the well-known ‘runner’s high’, moving in rhythm triggers the release of endorphins, which can positively impact your mood.9 When we are happy, we tend to continue doing something. Dancing offers so many physical and mental benefits, and happiness and increased confidence are like the icing on the cake. 

So you say you cannot dance?

If you are one of those people that say ‘I don't know how to dance’ or ‘dancing is not for me’, that is ok, just know that ANYONE can learn how to dance, and at a minimum, you can still move your body to music.

Another common objection that I hear people say is, ‘I don’t have enough energy to dance’ but the interesting thing is that when you push yourself and you do it, dance actually restores that ‘energy’. You will get energy back when you expend that energy - especially with dance. There is something magical about it.

Even though it makes sense to imagine how good dancing is for your body, we now have evidence from scientific research. In one such study, elderly patients danced twice a week over a six week period to determine the effects on blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat content and muscle mass. Researchers found the dancing group had improvements including reduced blood pressure and reduced body fat content. Dancers also experienced improved posture and better overall physical function.10

People who dance regularly not only burn calories, but they tone and condition their bodies. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before you start a new dance class, especially if the dance is rigorous and you are out of shape! However, if you stick with it, you’ll start to see benefits not only in your physical self but in your mental self

Researchers have also been intrigued by a possible link between dancing and longevity. Frankie Manning danced regularly until he passed away at the age of 94. Dick Van Dyke danced on a desk at a spry 93, and other dance icons including Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham danced well into their ninth decades.11 

Georgia Deane, who is currently 100 years old, still teaches dance. Her secret for longevity? To dance until she can’t move anymore. She also eats healthy foods, avoids alcohol, reads three books a week and maintains her positive outlook on life.12 People like Georgia give us hope for the future, and her zest for life, including dancing, helps keep her body mobile and her brain agile.

Recent studies examined brain scans of participants who were an average of 68 years old who either participated in social dance or interval training. Both activities were good for the brain, increasing the size of the hippocampus, but only dancing helped improve balance.13 As we age, balance is important to avoid injuries, and dancing can help us keep our bodies stronger and upright for longer.

How Dancing Impacts Your Brain

While the positive effects of dancing are easy to see when you look into a mirror, the mental effects will be no less profound on your overall health and wellbeing. Our understanding of these mental changes is now better understood as neuroscience has progressed. We can finally ‘see’ what is happening in the brain when we dance.

Dance is used as a potential therapeutic treatment for many disorders, including Down syndrome, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and depression. One study found that a history of dancing can help prevent a diagnosis of dementia.14 Another study found dancing can help reverse the effects of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, and that dancing was more effective than other types of exercise.13

Mental illnesses and disorders often have a social stigma which may prevent some people from seeking treatment. A meta-analysis looking at dozens of papers examined the effects of dancing on many conditions, including autism, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease and schizophrenia. Nearly all of the studies in the meta-analysis showed moderate to significant results, and dance movement therapy was found to positively impact the quality of life and improve cognitive skills while decreasing the effects of anxiety and depression.15 

If you just set people in motion they’ll heal themselves.

Gabrielle Roth

WHAT DOES DANCING HAVE TO DO WITH LEADERSHIP?

The easy answer is everything! Dancing has everything to do with leadership because leaders who are in better physical and mental condition will make better decisions and be more agile when they make those decisions. Dancing gives your body and mind a workout at the same time, so why not reap all of these benefits at once?

Take a look at the news headlines around the world. Our planet is in a crisis, and quality, compassionate leaders are needed now more than ever. Future generations depend on us to ensure a healthy, happy Earth still exists for them to live on!

Mental health seems to have always taken a backseat to physical health. Why do people feel like it’s ok to have a broken arm treated immediately but are afraid to go in for treatment for depression or anxiety? 

When you dance endorphins are released in your brain, which helps you feel better. Dancing also provides a social setting, and being around other people helps reduce depression. So, next time you are thinking of doing an activity with your work colleagues, why not opt for attending a dance class as a team? Or perhaps bring in a dance instructor to teach some moves you can all whip out at the next staff party?

It’s time to have a conversation about our mental health, and how declining brain health can result in disastrous leadership. We cannot be silent any longer, as this is a disservice to each of us as human beings and as citizens of the world, who deserve a planet where we can hope, love, dream and dance. Stay tuned for my next article as we continue to explore mental and brain health. Subscribe to our blog here to receive updates.

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Citations:

1. Searing L. The Big Number: The average U.S. adult sits 6.5 hours a day. For teens, it’s even more. The Washington Post, 26 April 2019, (26 April 2019, accessed 29 January 2020).

2. Medina C, Tolentino-Mayo L, López-Ridaura R, et al. Evidence of increasing sedentarism in Mexico City during the last decade: Sitting time prevalence, trends, and associations with obesity and diabetes. PLoS One 2017; 12: e0188518.

3. Website NHS. Why we should sit less. nhs.uk, (accessed 29 January 2020).

4. Department of Health, Human Services. The dangers of sitting: why sitting is the new smoking,  (accessed 29 January 2020).

5. Dray T. How Does Dance Affect the Body? LIVESTRONG.COM, https://www.livestrong.com/article/458353-how-does-dance-affect-the-body/ (2011, accessed 2 February 2020).

6. Teixeira-Machado L, Arida RM, de Jesus Mari J. Dance for neuroplasticity: A descriptive systematic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 2019; 96: 232–240.

7. Halliwell R. Why dancing feels so good: dancing can improve your mood, your health and your social life. The Daily Telegraph, 29 April 2016, (29 April 2016, accessed 17 February 2020).

8. Lumsden J, Miles LK, Macrae CN. Sync or sink? Interpersonal synchrony impacts self-esteem. Front Psychol 2014; 5: 1064.

9. Zajenkowski M, Jankowski KS, Kołata D. Let’s dance--feel better! Mood changes following dancing in different situations. EJSS 2015; 15: 640–646.

10. Hofgaard J, Ermidis G, Mohr M. Effects of a 6-Week Faroese Chain Dance Programme on Postural Balance, Physical Function, and Health Profile in Elderly Subjects: A Pilot Study. Biomed Res Int 2019; 2019: 5392970.

11. Friedman M. Is Dancing the Kale of Exercise? The New York Times, 30 April 2019, (30 April 2019, accessed 29 January 2020).

12. Pawlowski A. 100-year-old dance teacher shares her longevity secrets. TODAY.com, (2019, accessed 17 February 2020).

13. Rehfeld K, Müller P, Aye N, et al. Dancing or Fitness Sport? The Effects of Two Training Programs on Hippocampal Plasticity and Balance Abilities in Healthy Seniors. Front Hum Neurosci 2017; 11: 305.

14. Verghese J, Lipton RB, Katz MJ, et al. Leisure activities and the risk of dementia in the elderly. N Engl J Med 2003; 348: 2508–2516.

15. Koch SC, Riege RFF, Tisborn K, et al. Effects of Dance Movement Therapy and Dance on Health-Related Psychological Outcomes. A Meta-Analysis Update. Front Psychol 2019; 10: 1806.

Relmi Damiano

Relmi Damiano

I am the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer for the About my Brain Institute and Executive Producer of the Make Me A Leader documentary, a feature-length film on how leaders can optimise brain and body performance to thrive in the 21st Century. My design, photography and brand strategy work has centered around leadership, neuroscience, emotional intelligence, personal development, education and coaching. I am also a Samba dancer!

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