For older adults looking for an activity to improve both their brain health and balance, dance classes may be worth a try. Findings from a recent study suggest that learning and practicing new choreographies in a weekly dance class has greater benefits than physical activity alone.
Healthy older adults over the age of 60 participated in an 18-month intervention in which they took part in either a weekly 90-minute dance class or a weekly 90-minute fitness class. Participants in the dance group constantly learned new choreographies and performed a variety of dance styles. Participants in the fitness group performed strength, endurance, and flexibility training, as well as a Nordic Walking program.
After the 18-month training programs, measurements of brain health and balance were compared with pre-intervention measurements for both groups. The researchers used hippocampus volume (the region of the brain associated with learning and memory) to measure brain health, and found that although both groups showed increased volume of the left hippocampus, only the dance group showed increased volume of the right hippocampus. For balance, the researchers found that while both groups showed improvement, the dance group showed greater improvements in balance than the fitness group.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the physical and cognitive benefits of exercise, and participants from both groups had not previously engaged in weekly intensive physical activity, so it is not surprising that both groups showed improvements. However, there seems to be a growing amount of evidence that dance as a form of physical exercise is particularly beneficial. In this study, not only did dance participants show greater increases in brain health, but also showed greater improvements in balance. Qualities specific to dancing, such as coordination and memorizing routines, may be part of what makes dance more beneficial than physical activity alone.
Rehfeld K, Muller P, Aye N, 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); 11(305): 1-9.