Dance’s Impact on the Health of Seniors

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Martha Graham said, “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.” The benefit of expressing the soul through dance might explain Satchel Paige’s advice: “Dance like nobody’s watching.”

For older adults, dance benefits both the mind and the body. Researchers in England recently studied Dance for Health, a program of weekly group dance sessions for older hospitalized patients. The program was designed to address the loss of mobility and muscle mass that older patients experience during a prolonged hospital stay. The goal was to delay or avoid the need for residential or nursing care after discharge.

In the hospital or at home, inactivity is associated with a shorter lifespan as well as physical decline. Older people who do not move to the extent that their health permits are more likely to experience a loss of independence and to suffer from poor mental health. Regularly moving the body reduces the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, improves bone and muscle strength, limits feelings of anxiety, improves cognitive ability, and reduces the risk of dementia. While all age groups benefit from exercise, physical activity is essential for healthy aging.

Health Benefits of Dance

Dance can be an ideal form of exercise for older people. Dancers don’t need to move like Martha Graham or Michael Jackson. They just need to move. 

Dance programs can be tailored to match the physical abilities of the dancers. Ballroom dancing may be less demanding than salsa, but focusing on dance steps is good for the mind as well as the body. As older dancers become more confident, they can improve concentration and coordination by learning new dance steps. Learning to line dance or mastering a folk dance can increase both the cognitive and physical benefits of dance.

Research in 2011 by the UK’s Centre for Policy on Ageing found that dance provides “the opportunity for self-expression and the mental health benefits that can follow from a sense of mental liberation and the release of tension.” Dance also provides the health benefits of aerobic exercise, including heart benefits and increasing endurance needed for walking longer distances. Some forms of dance are more energetic than others, but all dancing requires movement that improves coordination, balance, and agility. Dance also enhances gait and posture.

Dance for Health

Because dance is a social activity, dance programs promote a sense of social inclusion and well-being. While it isn’t necessary to have a dance partner, dancing with another person or in a group of people adds a level of enjoyment that makes dance a satisfying form of exercise. Dance programs have a relatively low drop-out rate as compared to other exercise programs.

The scholars who studied the Dance for Health program often observed smiles and laughter during dance sessions. Participants confirmed that they were happy to be doing something different. Using a mood scale to translate subjective observations into objective data, the researchers determined that dancing had a positive impact on the moods of two-thirds of the program’s participants. Nearly 80% of participants felt more relaxed after the dance sessions ended. Researchers attributed those results, at least in part, to the distraction from physical concerns that Dance for Health provided for hospitalized patients.

Participants in Dance for Health enjoyed the music to which they danced, often reporting that it brought back good memories. The researchers had difficulty determining whether the music itself, the movement involved in dance, or social interaction conferred the greatest mental health benefit. Perhaps it is the combination of music, movement, and socializing that makes Dance for Health a successful program.

While Dance for Health is a program for hospital patients, dance programs can be enjoyed by older people who live independently and those who live in residential facilities. Programs that match the form of dance to the physical abilities of participants can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of dancers, regardless of their age.

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