Dancing to Improve Your Mental Health

Dancing is a form of exercise that not only helps to promote physical and emotional health, but also improve our brain function. Studies show evidence of improved neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to adapt to changes in the environment or situations, after a few months of dancing. More clinical research is needed but we might be getting closer to the cure of neurodegenerative disorders such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease. Looking at the statistics, we can say with some certainty that dancing regularly can be beneficial to our mental health.

A recently published review of eight studies asked the question: “What is the influence of dance practice on neuroplasticity in already mature brains?” It discusses that the studies show positive changes in the brain structure and its functions. These structural changes were increased hippocampal volume, grey matter in the left precentral and parahippocampal gyrus, and grey matter integrity. Functional changes included significant improvement in memory, attention and balance.

Improved memory

As we age, the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory, shrinks and this can lead to memory loss. Dance, as a long-term structured cognitive leisure activity, can improve memory and general cognitive function, according to a study, Effects of Cognitive Leisure Activity on Cognition in Mild Cognitive Impairment: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial. The study involved 201 Japanese people with an average age of 76 years old who showed a high risk of dementia. They performed 60 minutes of a leisurely activity weekly, either dancing or playing musical instruments, over a period of 40 weeks. The dance group showed “improved memory recall scores,” while the musical group did not.

Prevents dementia, age-related decline

Some experiments prove that dance can be an effective therapy to neurodegenerative disorders and can even possibly help prevent early onset dementia and Parkinson's disease.

A study published in March 2020, Shall We Dance? Dancing Modulates Executive Functions and Spatial Memory, administered neuropsychological tests on 46 healthy adults to measure their “linguistic and verbal fluency,” and assess their planning and spatial ability. The participants were split into two groups, of which 26 of them were dancers and had been practising salsa dancing for at least six months before the study. The remaining participants were not dancers and had not been doing any sport in the same period. The study suggests that dancing, along with other cognitive stimulation therapies, could help “maintain or even improve cognitive skills.”

A total of 20 participants in a 2017 study, The Dancing Brain: Structural and Functional Signatures of Expert Dance Training published on Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, demonstrated increased brain volume in the areas that control motor function. They also showed reduced levels of fractional anisotropy, of which increased levels can be an early indicator of brain degeneration.

Improved cognitive abilities

A recent 2020 study, Cognitive Load of Exercise Influences Cognition and Neuroplasticity of Healthy Elderly: An Exploratory Investigation, has shown that partaking in aerobic exercise with a strong cognitive element, such as choreographed dancing, shows greater improvement in cognitive abilities than the same level of exercise without. The research focused on two control groups of healthy elderly volunteers in a good state of mental health. The exercises the two groups participated in were classified as low-cognitive demand (LE) and high-cognitive demand (HE).

The LE group’s exercise was confined to walking on a treadmill, whereas the HE group participated in instructor-led aerobic dance workouts. The HE group had to observe and follow the instructor, as well as learn and predict movements, while the LE group only had to walk. The participants were made to exercise for 50 minutes three times a week over a period of four months. Their heart rates were monitored to ensure the same level of aerobic activity. The participants' cognitive abilities were then measured using a predefined test. The results showed that though there was little difference between the two test groups’ overall scores, the reaction times of the HE group were significantly faster than that of the LE group.

Increased brain volumes

A 2018 study, Dance training is superior to repetitive physical exercise in inducing brain plasticity in the elderly, shows challenging dance training can increase brain volume. The researchers specially designed a six-month long dance training course, which required constant learning of new steps and increasingly challenging choreography. The experiment involved 38 healthy seniors between 63 to 80 years old.

The results show that the participants in the dance program showed increased volume in the brain areas associated with attention and working memory, including storage of new information in long-term memory and retrieval of stored information. These are the areas that are mostly affected by decline in brain structure due to old age. The researchers recommend their dance program as low cost and low risk for elderly people.

Brain structure in seniors without signs of dementia also improved after an intensive dance exercise intervention of six months in a 2019 study.

Despite the emergence of several studies demonstrating positive effects of dancing to brain functions and structure, researchers continue to recommend further studies. The Dance for neuroplasticity: A descriptive systematic review suggests that future research should focus on younger subjects in order to ensure the positive effects of dancing on neuroplasticity are not only limited to the elderly.