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Dancing for your mental health

This may be the best type of exercise for mental health

By Sarah Berry

February 10, 2024 — 5.00am Sydney Morning Herald

It sparks a rush of stress-relieving, euphoria-inducing endorphins; distracts us from negative emotions; and immerses us in the experience of our breath and body. Exercise is so potent, not just for our physical health, but for our mental health that it can be even more effective than medication or counselling.

But a new metanalysis suggests the type of exercise we choose still matters. The paper, published in the journal Sport’s Medicine, found that dance is as good – and sometimes better – than other types of physical activity (including running or going to the gym) for improving emotional well-being, depression, social cognition and some aspects of memory.

In a former life, Dr Alycia Fong Yan was a professional dancer. She never liked going to the gym, lifting weights or running on a treadmill, but then dancing never felt like exercise.

Teaching ballet classes to adults who had never danced before, Fong Yan noticed that when the students were absorbed in the music and movement, they didn’t realise they were doing squats – or pliés, in ballet terminology. “It is exercise in disguise”, says Fong Yan, the study’s lead author from the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Medicine and Health and Sydney Musculoskeletal Health.

In a previous paper, Fong Yan compared the physical benefits of dance to other forms of activities and found that it is just as good for body composition, blood biomarkers, musculoskeletal function, mobility and cardiovascular function.

Next, she wanted to compare psychological and cognitive health outcomes of different activities with dance, as well as the adherence rates.

So, the research team analysed 27 studies comparing structured dance classes – including modern, jazz, Zumba, step, ballet, folk, belly or ballroom – with other physical activities including team sport (like soccer or volleyball), martial arts, running, walking and weight training. Participants, who ranged in age and health status attended one or more 30 to 90 minute classes a week, for at least six weeks.

Not only were dance class participants more likely to stay the course, they found dance was equally effective as other physical activity interventions in improving quality of life, reducing anxiety and improving depressive symptoms. Preliminary evidence also found dance to be superior to other physical activity interventions to improve motivation, aspects of memory social cognition and to reduce distress.

Fong Yan hopes the findings will inform exercise prescriptions and incorporate different types of dance to cater to the physical requirements of the patient (do they need a form with more or less balance, for instance) as well as their psychological, social and cognitive needs.

There are specific characteristics that underpin the benefits.

“Dancing requires superior motor planning and memory, multitasking, and focused and conscious attention to learn new movement patterns, remember choreographed sequences of movement, moving in time with the music, and particular focus and attention on movement quality and artistic expression,” writes Fong Yan and her colleagues.

It allows physical expression of creativity and emotion; listening to music we enjoy has its own mental health benefits; while moving in synchrony with others, whether it’s in a group or in a pair, enhances social bonding. And when there is trustful interpersonal touch, which is common in dance, it is associated with enhanced homeostatic regulation and immunoregulation.

Dancing can also just be more fun than being told to do 50 squats.

Michaela Upton stumbled across aerobic dance classes in Bondi while using the fitness membership Class Pass. The 32-year-old IT worker had tried Pilates, yoga, HIIT and spin classes but found herself “clock-watching” waiting for the sessions to end.

“Then I did a class at The Upbeat [which offers dance-inspired workout classes] and 45 minutes flew by,” she recalls. “It was the feeling of euphoria when you get the music pumping, and you’re doing something to the beat of that. You get in this flow where you forget you’re working out.”

At times when she has felt anxious or struggled with sleeping, going even once or twice a week helps: “I feel so much more positive and am a nicer person to be around generally.”

Dr Ben Singh, a research fellow at the University of South Australia’s Allied Health & Human Performance says the study highlights how diverse and approachable dance is as a form of physical activity.

“Ultimately, the study encourages personalised, enjoyable physical activity choices for sustained mental health benefits,” he says. “While the study showcases the effectiveness of dance interventions, it underscores the broader principle that choosing physical activities one enjoys is critical for mental health benefits. This might involve dance, while for others, it could entail engaging in other enjoyable physical activities such as cycling, walking, swimming, yoga, or hitting the gym and lifting weights.”

Why you should lift weight

Many people seek to build strength and muscle in hopes of improving their looks or performance in sports. Those are worthy goals, but outcomes even more important for your overall health and wellbeing are these:

  • Prevention of obesity
  • Prevention of diabetes
  • Prevention of osteoporosis
  • Prevention of injuries
  • Prevention of age-related disabilities and limitations in daily activities
  • Reduced risk of dying from cancer or heart failure
  • Abating of symptoms (pain, fatigue, muscle weakness) of some diseases

Beginning about age 40, you gradually lose muscle mass and strength. In addition, muscle function becomes less efficient as you age, which means older muscles generate less force than younger muscles. But if you lift weights, you’ll not only maintain your muscle mass, you can increase it, and you can reverse some of the age-related loss of muscle efficiency. Research shows this to be the case even for those beyond their 80s.

Strength workouts can include machines, free weights, resistance bands or bodyweight exercises like squats and planks. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults participate in muscle-strengthening exercise involving all major muscles at least twice weekly.

Don’t be afraid of weights! For women, weight training does not lead to bulky muscles. They don’t have the testosterone levels that men do. Weight training will tone and sculpt only.

Death By Sitting

DEATH BY SITTING

On average, adults in high- and middle-income countries around the world spend nearly 10 of their waking hours a day on sedentary activities. The average American office worker can sit for 13 to 15 hours a day. People in agrarian villages sit for about three hours a day.

Overwhelming evidence shows that prolonged sitting is devastating to your health and a risk factor for premature death, even if you exercise regularly and are very fit. Hours of inactivity causes molecular changes at the cellular level that contribute to at least 24 different chronic diseases that include obesity, heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cancer.

Dr. James Levine, author of Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It, is co-director of the Obesity Initiative for Mayo Clinic/Arizona State University, and he’s also the inventor of the treadmill desk. He recommends sitting no more than 50 minutes out of every hour, and the less, the better. According to Dr. Levine, as you stand up, a series of molecular effects are activated simply by weight-bearing; by carrying your bodyweight upon your legs. The ways your body handles blood sugar, triglycerides and cholesterol are beneficially impacted, for example, as are the mechanisms that push fuels into your cells.

Dr. Joan Vernikos, the author of Sitting Kills, Moving Heals, is a retired NASA scientist who monitored the recovery of the astronauts from the effects of space travel. She found that prolonged sitting produces the same body decline astronauts suffer in a weightless environment. She says that merely standing up over 30 times a day is a powerful antidote for long periods of sitting and is more effective than walking. “It’s not how many hours of sitting is bad for you,” she says. “It’s how often you interrupt that sitting that is good for you.”

Both experts agree that while regular, traditional exercise programs are to be encouraged, it is ordinary, non-exercise movement spread throughout the day that offsets prolonged sitting. So stand up, and stand often.