MAGDEBURG, Germany — Forget about all the supplements, holistic treatments, and superfood smoothies. Seniors who want to turn back the clock when it comes to aging and keep both their bodies and their brains healthy need only to take a trip to their local ballroom dance hall.
That’s because a new study finds that while regular exercise helps keep us strong physically and mentally, dancing may be the most valuable form of physical activity — so much so that it actually has certain anti-aging effects more substantial than the benefits of general fitness.
Researchers at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg recruited 26 healthy seniors (mostly in their late 60s) and split them into two groups. One group was assigned to learn routines from a dance instructor, while the other partook in endurance and flexibility training courses. Both groups participated in their respective classes weekly over 18 months.
During the exercise program, participants performed various regimens — cycling or Nordic walking, for example — while those who took dance courses learned new genres or routines every other week.
“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process,” says Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, the lead author of the study, in a press release. “The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”
Both groups showed marked increases in the hippocampus portion of the brain, the same area where conditions like Alzheimer’s and depression typically originate. The hippocampus is known for its role in controlling memory, learning and spatial navigation, while it also helps us keep our balance — which is where the researchers noticed a difference between members in the dance group compared to those in the exercise group.
“In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that led to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance,” says Rehfield.
While researchers noted a size increase in the same portion of the hippocampus for each of the participants, only the dancers registered a greater volume in the area known as the left dentate gyrus and the right subiculum.
Rehfield and her team are hoping to use the new research to create optimal fitness routines that combine aspects of dancing and general exercise that can best combat age-related ailments for seniors.
“Right now, we are evaluating a new system called “Jymmin” (jamming and gymnastic). This is a sensor-based system which generates sounds (melodies, rhythm) based on physical activity. We know that dementia patients react strongly when listening to music,” she says. “We want to combine the promising aspects of physical activity and active music making in a feasibility study with dementia patients.”
The study was published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.