Regardless of gender, generation or income group, more and more people are going to the dance floor for a workout versus a gym and an exercise physiologist at New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery, a leading center for sports medicine, thinks she knows why.
"The best exercise program is one that is safe, balanced, promotes fitness and importantly, one people will do regularly because they enjoy it," according to Polly de Mille, exercise physiologist at the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery.
"The social aspects of dance help to make it very attractive for an increasing number of people versus, say, an elliptical training machine. Scientific studies are now also telling us that many things make dancing an excellent fitness regimen with attractive benefits," de Mille said.
Of course, balanced, targeted gym workouts can provide excellent fitness benefits as well but for some people, the "fun factor" is missing at the gym.
"Those working out in gyms are often plugged into their iPods or their reading material, following their own regimen. Those dancing, however, are often moving in unison, possibly facing one another or touching, and having a communal experience. Connection and cooperation with others is integral to the experience," she said.
Dance is also very good for balance and posture, according to Beth Shubin Stein, M.D., an assistant attending orthopaedic surgeon in the Women's Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery who is trained in sports medicine and shoulder surgery.
"Dance is also a great aerobic workout and in addition tones many different muscle groups," Dr. Shubin Stein said.
Popular TV programs like ABC-TV's "Dancing with the Stars," which returns for its third season September 12, underscore the romance and passion sometimes involved in dance. De Mille cautions, however, that people need to know their limits and pace themselves before considering some of the acrobatic moves seen on TV.
While dance may not be for everyone (de Mille personally finds regular runs in Central Park to be very calming) and a few precautions need to be kept in mind, she says studies clearly show the health benefits of dance compared to gym workouts are impressive. Specifically:
Dance movements are multi-directional versus the straight forward motion on treadmills, ellipticals, Stairmasters etc. Joint mobility may benefit from the varied movements. One study demonstrated improved range of hip motion and flexibility of the spine on young adults who followed a three-month program of dance training.
Dance movements are weight-bearing and varied compared to a stationary bike. That is important for maintaining or improving bone density. Studies of recreational ballet dancers between the ages of 8-14 show higher bone mineral content in their hips and spine than in girls who did not dance.
Dance requires agility and balance as well as various speeds of movement, skills that are generally not a focus of typical gym workouts. Studies of older populations who engage in dance-based exercise programs demonstrate improvement in balance and agility. This may be important in reducing risks of falls in this population.
Dance is mentally stimulating, requiring focus on coordination and learning movement patterns. Most people will read, listen to music, or watch TV to alleviate the boredom associated with most indoor exercise equipment. Dance requires being mentally engaged with physical movement, a constant mind-body connection.
Emotional responses are common in dance and would rarely occur in a gym workout. The music, movement patterns and mental engagement involved in dance often evoke emotions. One study showed that breast cancer survivors who participated in a 12-week dance and movement program not only improved their shoulder range of motion but showed improvements in measures of body image and quality of life.
Dance also can be a substitute for a cardiovascular gym workout. Depending on the type of dance, dance can be an excellent cardiovascular workout when done regularly. It would result in the same health benefits associated with any form of activity that involves sustained effort in the target heart rate zone such as improved cardiovascular function, lipid metabolism, endurance and body composition.
De Mille advises people considering dance as fitness therapy to keep three key points in mind:
Treat any pain first -- People should see their doctor and perhaps a physical therapist to have their pain issues diagnosed and treated properly. Pain is a warning signal that something can be wrong.
Wear good shoes -- Dance shoes often don't have the kind of cushioning and support that other exercise shoes offer. Style should not completely replace sensibility. Dancers should be careful about the footwear they select.
Don't get swept away — People can challenge themselves more than they should. As with any activity, pacing yourself, listening to your body and knowing your limits is important.
"From a mind-body perspective, anything you do successfully on the physical end will positively affect your mental and emotional states. Dancers have excellent posture and just standing a little straighter can have a surprising transfer of power to your next board meeting or challenging conversation," commented Jenny Susser, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at the Women's Sports Medicine Center at HSS.
The first of its kind in the United States, the Women's Sports Medicine Center at HSS is a nationally recognized health resource for active women of all ages and abilities, from eager novices to professional athletes.