Some seven million of us are expected to tune in to the Strictly Come Dancing Christmas Special. And as the BBC favourite reaches its 13th year, the popularity of dancing shows no sign of diminishing.
Five million Britons hit the dance floor regularly, and it is one of the most popular fitness activities among the over-55s. A recent YouGov survey found that eight out of ten participate in dance (or dance-fitness sessions) weekly, while 97% do so monthly – more than in all other age groups.
But as well as being sociable, glamorous and fun, dance has numerous health benefits, from boosting bone density to battling dementia. So if you enjoy a gentle boogie at a party this Christmas, and have a long-term physical problem or want to stay in shape, it might be worth taking it up as a New Year hobby.
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Dance is a fantastic way to extend your range of movement, according to Rachel Rogers, project development manager at the Merseyside Dance Initiative (www.mdi.org.uk), which runs performance and health projects in the Liverpool area.
These include 50 Moves, a dance and fitness class for people aged 50-plus, and sessions in partnership with the English National Ballet as part of the ENB’s nationwide Dance for Parkinson’s programme (www.ballet.org.uk). It uses ballet and Afro-Caribbean dance to improve short-term mobility and body confidence. ‘Some people who walk in with sticks, walk out without them,’ says Rachel. ‘The great thing is, dance is about artistic expression, not about being ill.’
‘After ten years of Parkinson’s I feel I can now pass for “normal”,’ says 70-year-old Carroll Forth, who attends one of the ENB classes in London. ‘Anything that lets you lose yourself and forget you have this disease, even for a moment, is wonderful.’
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Pump that heart
Like any aerobic activity, dance benefits your breathing and blood flow. But, unlike slogging it out on a treadmill or at an aerobics class, it can feel so little like exercise that people are more motivated to stick at it. ‘Dancing is a fantastic way to help reduce your risk of heart disease and can help cardiac patients get back on their feet,’ says Emily Reeve, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation.
For the past three years, patients at Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital who have had heart attacks, bypass or valve surgery, heart failure or suffer from angina, have been discovering the benefits of jitterbug, aka lindy hop, a style of dance popular in the Thirties and Forties.
After just a few weeks on the Strictly Not Rehab programme, patients have more stamina, says creator and coronary heart disease nurse consultant Dr Kate Gee. ‘The classes increase their confidence to exercise, too. Even people who use walking frames can do the stroll and the charleston.’ Indeed, most participants are so bitten by the jitterbug and the improvements to their heart health that they continue Strictly Social dance classes after the hospital programme finishes.
Strengthen those bones
Dance is also an activity par excellence for helping bones stay strong, says Dawn Skelton, professor in ageing and health at Glasgow Caledonian University. ‘Bones are built by the action of muscle pulling on them. Studies show that regular dancers, especially those who do high-impact dances where one foot is lifted from the floor, have better bone density.’
Research by the National Osteoporosis Society shows that 85% of people diagnosed with osteoporosis or osteopenia, the weakening of bones that can precede osteoporosis, reduce physical activity. However, says Professor Skelton, this is the worst thing to do. ‘Unless you are in the late stages of osteoporosis, it’s important to stay active.’
Seventy-four-year-old Lesley Moore from Liverpool, who was diagnosed with osteoporosis four years ago, agrees. She attends 50 Moves in Liverpool as well as tap-dance classes. ‘I feel so much stronger from using muscles I didn’t before,’ she says. ‘When I went for a check-up recently I was told the holes in my bones have closed up significantly.’ Lesley also has osteoarthritis, but feels dancing has strengthened her joints. ‘It’s wonderful.’
Related: Find out what you can do to avoid brittle bones
Stay steady on your feet
Caledonian’s Professor Skelton is also working on a London-based pilot study for Aesop Arts Enterprises (ae-sop.org) to see if dance can help the one in three over-60s who suffers a tumble or slip each year.
‘Some kind of dance – with a partner if you are unsteady – is one of the best things to help to prevent falls,’ she says. In 2012 a Brazilian study found that ballroom dancing helped improve balance.
‘Conventional falls-prevention programmes have problems attracting and retaining participants,’ says Tim Joss, Aesop’s founder and chief executive. ‘We’ve trained professional dance artists to “hide” moves from two falls programmes into our Dance to Health project to see if we can overcome this. Classes include everything from partner dancing to creative improvised moves.’
As well as two pilots in London, a further four are planned for Cheshire and Oxfordshire.
Related: Read our guide to preventing falls
Boost your memory
Repetitive movement combined with music has been shown to establish nerve connections, and to strengthen and reinforce nerve pathways in the brain.
Learning the complex foot and hand movements in routines also stimulates the grey matter. This may all help to ward off or ease the symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and stroke.
A recent Canadian study found the tricky moves of tango in particular may combat some of the effects of Parkinson’s disease, including reduced cognitive function and fatigue.
Daphne Cushnie, neurological physiotherapist and dance artist, draws inspiration from tango as well as Latin, ballroom, contemporary dance, line dancing and ballet for Cumbria’s NHS-funded Dancing Recall: Making Connections programme (www.activecumbria.org/sports-and-fitness), one of many initiatives now on offer for people with dementia. ‘In people with early stages of the disease it seems to have a lasting effect on memory and communication,’ she says.
Related: Five ways to supercharge your memory
Lift your mood
It’s not just cardiovascular patients whose recuperation is improved by dance. It can help you to recover from surgery, many other serious illnesses and accidents. A study this year by University of Auckland researchers and others, for instance, found that recovering cancer patients gained ‘pride’ and ‘courage’ from taking part in a community dance project, giving them a mental boost in their fight against the disease.
‘As well as improving flexibility and stamina, and allowing people to build up activity levels gradually, dancing is a great way to connect with others at an often difficult and lonely time,’ says John Newlands, senior cancer information nurse specialist at Macmillan Cancer Support.
When former paramedic David Mines found that physiotherapy wasn’t helping in his recovery from an operation to transplant bone from his leg to his jaw, following cancer five years ago, a friend suggested dancing. David was having trouble walking and his balance was terrible, but he decided to take up the tango.
‘At first I found it physically demanding and painful,’ says the 67-year-old from Derbyshire. ‘Yet within four weeks there was improvement and by three months I could walk without pain.’
David recently added modern jive to his repertoire and has seen even more benefits. When his doctor checked his blood pressure recently, it had reduced significantly and David’s mood has also improved. He is now developing a dance package for fellow cancer sufferers. ‘I haven’t felt so well mentally or physically for years,’ he says.
Related: 10 more ways to lift your mood
Which type of dance could boost your health the most?
Waltz, tango, slow foxtrot and quickstep – there’s something for everyone. Helps improve heart and lung function and balance. Tremendously sociable.
Though dances such as cha-cha, samba, rumba, paso doble and jive are forms of ballroom, they are generally faster and more energetic and are great for strengthening bones and flexibility.
Its complicated, rhythmic steps and backwards and forwards movements are particularly good at training the brain and combating the effects of Parkinson’s disease, dementia and stroke.
Danced to anything from 120-140 beats a minute to a crazy 240-plus, it’s good for core stability because you have to pull in your stomach and lift from your ribs.
Tap Those flaps, kicks and shuffle steps are brilliant for bones.
Ballet and contemporary dance
Great for muscle tone and flexibility. They’re also mentally uplifting.
Jitterbug or lindy hop
Boosts cardiovascular and respiratory health.
Related: Find out more about different dance styles