How dancing can improve your mental and physical health

Move your body to your favourite tunes – it’s the ultimate feel-good exercise and has some surprising effects on both the body and mind

Woman dancing on the beach

Music and dance have been fundamental parts of the human experience for thousands of years. No matter what your favourite tune may be, music can have a huge effect on your wellbeing – Charles Darwin even thought that our ability to make and understand rhythmic beats worked as an early form of communication.

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Whether or not we still share messages through music, we all know that it can change our mood and studies have shown that we share a natural sense of rhythm (no matter how much you might protest).

Dance is therefore a natural outlet, and one which can do a lot to make us feel good.

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Mental health benefits of dance

There is no doubt that dance, in whatever form it may take, is a brilliant form of exercise. Moving your body in all directions for an extended period of time with all the enthusiasm we can muster is great for improving your physical health. (A feel-good soundtrack often does the trick when it comes to getting moving) But dancing has been proven to have a positive impact on the mind too.

Dance is a way of dealing with feelings and releasing them.
Sarah Cook

Research dating all the way back to the 1980s has shown that dancing regularly can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

Setting foot on the dance floor, or getting jiggy at home, is an instant mood-booster and keeping up the habit can improve our confidence, body image and wellbeing.

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Sarah Cook, a dance researcher who has felt the effect of dance on mental health for herself, explains that movement helps us to come to terms with our feelings.

“Dance is a way of dealing with feelings and releasing them, instead of locking them in and going to the doctor with depression and anxiety,” she says.

Expressing yourself through movement may come easier than vocalising your feelings and so engaging in dance can feel quite liberating. Plus, any style goes – practically all forms of dance, whether a professional style or unstructured movement to music, have similar effects.

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How to dance mindfully

If the word ‘dance’ seems a little intimidating (and your first thought is more Blackpool ballroom than bopping around your kitchen while you wait for the kettle to boil), then just forget that term. Think about it as mindful movement instead.

You might not automatically put the two practices together, but dancing and mindfulness go hand in hand. “An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience,” explains Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre.

Drawing your attention to the movements of your body, the rhythm of your chosen music, how it makes you feel and your breath as you move is therefore a simple way to get into a mindful mood while you dance.

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Jamie Marich, a dancer, counsellor and arts therapist, shares her passion for moving mindfully in her book, Dancing Mindfulness: A Creative Path to Healing and Transformation. She explains that you don’t need to be a good dancer to be able to include it in your mindful routine.

“Dancing isn’t about escaping the stressors of daily life. Dancing offers us a way to embrace them. By being present while dancing, we can learn about ourselves and our bodies,” she adds.

Moving to our favourite music is an uplifting experience and by being present in the moment, we are able to reconnect with ourselves. Absolutely anyone can dance too.

Be brave and head out to a class to learn something new, step out onto the dance floor with a few friends or just put on your favourite song when you have a couple of minutes and get moving.

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How does dancing affect the brain?

Finding time to dance regularly will leave you fitter and healthier but dancing also has a few specific, and unexpected, health benefits.

One study has shown that people who dance regularly significantly reduce their risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease in later life. By exercising the mind as well as the body, dancers are 76% less likely to see cognitive decline.

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Heart health is also improved with regular dancing. An Australian study which gathered data from 48,000 people found that this group was better protected from heart disease. In fact, when compared to people who rarely or never danced, they had a 46% lower risk of cardiovascular death.

Dancing can improve quality of life too. As an innately social activity, dancing is a brilliant way to build new relationships. Considering that a third of people often or very often feel lonely, attending a dance class could be the way forward.

Studies show that dancing with a partner quickly builds trust, co-operation and positive social feelings – in fact, your GP can now prescribe social activities like dance classes to tackle loneliness, so heading along to one could be the ideal way to make a few new friends.

Is dance right for me?

7 common problems and solutions so you can make it onto the dance floor

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1

I don’t have the confidence – I don’t want to make a fool of myself

Dancing is for everyone so don’t hold yourself back! If you want to attend a class, remember that teachers are there to help you and don’t forget that everyone else probably feels the same. If you don’t have the confidence to join a group, just get dancing at home. Have your own dancing sessions for free – make it social by inviting over a few friends who you’re comfortable with or head out all together.

2

I don’t have anyone to go to a class with – what should I do?

Go on your own and make friends there! Not everyone has a partner when they arrive at a class and after a few spins around the room, you’ll soon get to know people. It’s also worth asking a friend if they’d like to join you – it doesn’t matter if neither of you are great dancers or have danced before, learning together could be a real bonding experience.

3

I have no idea where to begin looking for a class

If you’re sure that you want to join a dance class, the first place to look is online. Search your local area for the style you want to learn – this NHS page has some great tips for where to direct your search. We would recommend looking out for classes at your gym and local community centre too. Asking a friend could also glean good results – plus, you might end up with a partner to take along, or even introduce you, to a class.

4

I’m too old to start dancing now

As Jamie Marich says, “All bodies are welcome and all abilities. Anyone can dance, although many of us hold back because we don’t look like dancers or because we have physical limitations.” Take it at your own pace, but dance has no age limit!

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5

I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up!

Although it will help you keep fit, not all dancing is a high intensity work out. Choose a slower pace with more traditional ballroom styles and you’ll give yourself a little more time to get each step right. Remember that everyone learns and moves at their own pace so don’t worry about your ability level when you start dancing, if you are enjoying it, then it is doing you good.

6

I have no sense of co-ordination, maybe dancing isn’t for me?

Even if you don’t feel like the most elegant dancer, the act of dancing can still bring a lot of joy. We all have a natural sense of rhythm and with practise and time spent moving your body in whichever style you choose, you can only get better. Give it a go and see what you think.

7

I want more of a work out – dancing doesn’t seem too strenuous

The number of calories you burn dancing all depends on the style you choose. Dance can burn more calories than running and in 30 minutes of energetic movement, the average person will use 300 calories dancing. Why not try joining a dance-themed fitness class like Zumba to get the most out of your rhythmic work out?

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Photos by Ryan Everton, Julia Caesar, Anderson Rangel, Scott Broome and Saksham Gangwar on Unsplash