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Dancing for Health: Good for You, and Fun

Italian study shows benefits of dancing for health

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Senior couple dancing outdoors
Blend Images - Plush Studios/Bill Reitzel/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images
Heaven... I'm in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.
And I seem to find the happiness I seek,
When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.

-- Irving Berlin

Way back in 1935, songwriter Irving Berlin advised young lovers to go “dancing cheek to cheek” as a prescription for happiness. Today, medical researchers and a growing number of cardiologists are advising heart patients to enjoy the benefits of dancing for health.

Try Dancing for Heart Health
A study conducted by medical researchers in Italy found that people with heart failure who took up waltzing improved their heart health, their breathing and their quality of life significantly more than those who exercised by bicycling or walking on a treadmill.

The dancers also reported other benefits of dancing for health: slightly better results for sleep, mood, and their ability to have sex, pursue hobbies and do housework than the group that followed more traditional exercise programs.

Exercise Can Increase Longevity—If You Do It
Numerous studies have shown that people with heart failure who get regular exercise live longer and have a better quality of life than those who remain sedentary, according to Dr. Romualdo Belardinelli, professor of cardiology at Università Politecnica delle Marche School of Medicine and director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at Lancisi Heart Institute in Ancona, Italy.

But getting heart failure patients to stick to an exercise program isn’t easy. As many as 70 percent of heart patients eventually drop out of traditional programs.

"We have to find new ways to reach them," Belardinelli said.

Why Choose Dancing for Health?
Belardinelli said researchers chose the waltz because it has “universal appeal” and is a very aerobic exercise, but he said other slow dances should work, too.

“This may be a more effective way of getting people to exercise, and may be more fun than running on a treadmill,” Dr. Robert Bonow, chief of cardiology at Northwestern Memorial School of Medicine told the Associated Press. “Maybe we should try that here. I’m not sure we can get Americans to waltz, but they can certainly dance.”

Bonow, who is also former president of the American Heart Association, said that some of the heart health and other dancing and health benefits may be related to the fact that they are interacting socially instead walking on a treadmill by themselves.

How the Heart Health Study was Conducted
The Italian study included 110 people—89 men and 21 women—with mild-to-moderate heart failure. Heart failure occurs when the heart weakens and can no longer pump blood effectively, causing fluid to build up in a person’s lungs and other body tissues. People with this type of heart failure can walk around, but they become winded much sooner and can't exercise as long as healthy people.

For the heart health study:

  • 44 men and women exercised by cycling and walking on a treadmill three times a week for eight weeks
  • 44 people danced, alternating between slow five-minute waltzes and fast three-minute waltzes for 21 minutes, three times a week for eight weeks.
  • The other 22 people who took part in the study did not exercise.

Both exercise and waltzing improved heart health and breathing among study participants. Those who did not exercise at all saw no improvement.

The Benefits of Dancing for Health
In many ways, dancing for health makes sense. Dancing allows you to work at your fitness level, increasing speed and footwork as your strength and stamina improve. Other benefits of dancing for health include:

  • Using more of your muscle groups for overall toning
  • Improving balance, which can help you avoid falling injuries
  • Reducing stress
  • Improving your social life and making new friends
  • Having fun and feeling young

Why Doctors Like Dancing for Health
"A well-trained athlete utilizes oxygen very efficiently, so his muscles don't demand as much oxygen-containing blood per minute. This is what allows him or her to exercise harder and further than the average person," according to Elliott M. Antman, MD, a heart specialist at Harvard Medical School, in an interview with WebMD.

"Similarly, dancing and exercise both helped heart failure patients to utilize their oxygen more efficiently, thereby allowing them to exercise more without running out of breath," said Antman, who is also an AHA spokesman.

"Dancing appears to be an attractive and fun way for heart failure patients to get their exercise," Antman said. "I highly recommend it."

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