When you have a chronic condition, you may not feel like dancing the night away. But dancing with a partner actually may be the best thing you can do for body and mind. Studies show that partnered dancing offers tremendous benefits to people with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and those recovering from a stroke.
Here’s a new condition to add to the list—multiple sclerosis (MS). The progressive chronic central nervous system disease, which can alternate between flare-ups and periods of remission, can cause fatigue, muscle weakness and balance problems. It often affects the ability to walk unaided.
Whether it’s the waltz, fox-trot or salsa, partnered dancing is a perfect activity for people with MS. “If you’re with a partner, you might be able to do movements that you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do if you have issues with balance or impaired movement,” says study author Alexander Ng, PhD, a professor of exercise science—and a recreational ballroom dancer himself. The partner offers physical support and can be somewhat of a coach, encouraging the patient to push him or herself.
To test the theory, Dr. Ng included 12 people with MS who were able to walk at least 25 feet on their own and stand for at least five minutes without assistance. Some had no noticeable movement problems at all, while others needed the help of a cane or walker to get around. Six participated in hour-long dance classes…twice a week…for six out of eight weeks (to give participants flexibility around summer vacations). The other six people, the control group, didn’t dance but received the same routine medical care as the dancers. Dances included the waltz, fox-trot, rumba and swing. (In the next study now in progress, they will also be including salsa, tango and merengue.) Before and after the dance program, both groups underwent a battery of tests such as walking unaided for 25 feet, getting up from a chair and walking three yards and then sitting down quickly (a measure of mobility), and tests for walking balance, which predicts the risk of falling.
The results: Dancers had higher scores on those tests for balance, mobility and endurance. They also had improvements in self-reported fatigue and depression (which tend to afflict people with MS) as well as cognitive benefits related to the ability to stay focused, while the control group did not.
It’s a small, preliminary study, although another small study has found similar benefits when people with MS learn salsa dancing. As it turns out, there is a good body of research backing up partnered dancing for chronic conditions.
HOW SOCIAL DANCING WORKS AS THERAPY
At a minimum, dancing is aerobic exercise, which has been demonstrated to improve both physical and cognitive function in people with neurological disorders. Dance is also a complex activity that uses a combination of physical and mental tasks. Physically, dance requires balance, flexibility, speed and coordination—all skills that diminish in people with MS. And it calls on brain power—you have to remember and repeat steps, work with a partner and coordinate your movements together. Plus, it’s social, which engages yet another part of the brain, and, last but not least, it’s joyful. “When you’re focused on dancing,” says Dr. Ng, “troubles that may otherwise occupy your brain are shunted aside, so that you finish mentally refreshed.”
Indeed, neuroimaging studies have shown that frequent dancing increases activity throughout the brain. When you’re in the groove, it seems, your whole brain just lights up.
The strongest evidence for the benefits of partner dancing is in Parkinson’s disease, another neurological condition in which movement is affected. Partner dancing actually echoes many of the key elements recommended in physical therapy for Parkinson’s, such as responding to cues, learning new ways to move and engaging in balance exercises.
Studies show that partnered dancing helps people with Parkinson’s develop a better gait while walking, have less rigidity in their movements, improve their ability to use their arms and hands and, in general, helps with functional mobility. One non-profit organization, Dance for Parkinson’s offers resources in more than 100 communities in 13 countries.
Perhaps its strongest appeal is that it’s fun, creative and social. Says Dr. Ng, “People don’t tend to view dance as exercise or physical therapy…so they’re more likely to want to do it.” Nor do you need to find special classes for people with MS or other chronic conditions. While it’s a good idea to get lessons in ballroom dancing if you’re unfamiliar with the steps, it’s not a requirement. Says Dr. Ng, “Partnered dance for people with MS isn’t rehabilitation per se but a fun option for physical activity.”
DANCING FOR THE REST OF US
Partner dancing is great for healthy aging for everyone, actually. Combining physical training with cognitive demands, such as having to learn dance moves, results in better cognitive improvements in healthy older adults, compared with doing either physical exercise or cognitive training by itself. What’s more, healthy older adults who are involved in amateur dancing score better on a list of motor and cognitive skills than their nondancing counterparts. Once you get good at it, you may even want to consider competitive ballroom dancing. Bonus: It’s said to make women feel more beautiful.