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Fight Dementia With Your Feet: The Brain-Strengthening Power of Dancing

Last week, I promised to show you a powerful brain exercise that some of my readers are going to love…and some might not.

In our discussion of dementia prevention, we’ve talked about eating a brain-healthy diet and exercising your brain with interlobal activities like navigating to an unfamiliar location without a GPS. As it turns out, taxi drivers who rely on their minds to navigate complex cities instead of using their GPS have larger hippocampuses – the grey matter of the brain where the two hemispheres of the brain are talking.

The Whole Brain

This week, we’re going to talk about a brain exercise that will network several parts of your brain at once, strengthening each area while building a stronger neural network between them all.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m talking about dancing.

Yes, dancing.

The Brain-building Power of Dancing

Consider this passage from “Brain Tricks,” by the Editorial Staff of Brain Health Breakthroughs:

“Dancing engages several brain functions at once: musical, emotional, rational and kinesthetic (the connection between your brain and your body). lt’s a type of activity that fires up thousands of neural pathways. When done consistently and frequently, it keeps your brain firing on all cylinders.”

Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean all dancing styles are equal. If you’ve ever watched “Dancing With The Stars,” you know what I mean. Those dances are not just “club bumping.” The dance partners build complex routines around the intricate social ballroom dancing styles, where partners have to coordinate split-second decisions and remember lists of detailed positions.

I’m not a big follower of the show, but I remember one particular routine I saw – probably on Facebook – that absolutely blew my mind. I distinctly remember the announcer calling the dance style an “Argentine Tango,” because I expected it to be stiff and boring. Instead, the couple looked like they were flying around the room. It was graceful and elegant, and they made it look easy. When they got done, they were sweating profusely and commented how much concentration it took to make sure every step landed exactly right. Their dance was not only athletic, it used almost every area of their brains.

The article continues:

“Dances like the foxtrot, cha-cha, quickstep, paso doble and rumba are lively, dynamic dances that require two people to be in sync with the music and with each other, calling for a great amount of concentration that builds neuroplasticity.”

If you think this is going to be the place where I go crazy and encourage you to go out and take ballroom dancing lessons…you’re right.

Why Dancing?

I can give you a long list of exercises that will strengthen your core muscle groups or firm and tighten your thighs, glutes, and calves. I can show you exercises that will improve your stability, flexibility, and motor control. But I don’t have too many exercises that will work all that PLUS stimulate and strengthen your brain to prevent dementia.

When you dance, you not only engage the musical and rhythmic parts of your brain, which link to creativity, organization, emotion, and memory:

  • It also links your arms, legs, hands, and feet. It requires learning a new skill, which creates new neural pathways in the brain.
  • Repetition of the movements reinforces those neural pathways.
  • It requires hand-eye and foot-eye coordination, which link in the brain.
  • It requires the balance of the core muscle groups, and it requires enhanced verbal and non-verbal communication between the partners.
  • And most dance songs are three to ten minutes long, so these aren’t just short bursts of brain exercise.

Plus, it’s fun.

Can Exercise Be “Fun?”

I’ll be the first to tell you that the treadmill, the rowing machine, the elliptical machines, and the stairs, while powerful, are not fun (at least not until you form a habit and start to see the kind of results that make them interesting). Most exercises require a certain amount of personal discipline to keep you consistent because they are boring. Most of the people I know have to have music or a podcast going in their ears while they work out, to stave off boredom. Dancing is the kind of thing that people look forward to doing. It’s usually a social activity and it involves energetic music. Most dances include a lot of physical touch, which is also very good for your brain.

So, your heart is pumping, your muscles are flexing and retracting, your brain is processing a million different calculations, and both dopamine and oxytocin are flooding through your body as you dance. It’s like a perfectly-blended smoothie or a balanced salad, where all the flavor groups and all the nutrient groups are represented.

It’s a potent recipe for good health.

Anyone Can Do This

What’s more, there’s no age limit on dancing. I know couples who danced together into their 90s. Maybe their movements were a little stiff, but I’ll tell you the truth — they were healthier, happier, and a lot more flexible than their non-dancing peers.

If you are at an age where you are concerned about your hips, or your sciatica, or your knees, make an appointment to see me. We can fix that. I want you to be strong and mobile, and if I can help you engage in an activity that will also promote brain health and protect you from dementia, I will do whatever it takes.

Overcome Excuses

Now, if you’re concerned that you will look silly, I get it. I wouldn’t want anyone to watch me dance, but that’s because I don’t know what I’m doing on the dance floor. Go learn from a dance instructor. It’s just like anything else: instruction and practice bring confidence.

Whether you are in your 30s or your 80s, and you want to protect your brain, go dancing.

Join Me For Dinner Tomorrow Night

If you’re in the Naples area, I want to invite you to tomorrow night’s Fundamental Foods and Friends Dinner at my practice behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road. My special guest speaker is LCSW and therapist Susan Brenner. We’re going to be talking about the mental game of wellness, moving past negative emotions to positive results.

No matter how you feel about the outcome of this week’s elections, you have probably encountered some negative emotions in the past few months. And as we enter the holiday season, it’s easy to give in painful memories, disappointed expectations, and discouragement about one thing or another. Negative feelings are real and I want to equip you with the skills to deal with them appropriately. Join us at 6:15 pm on Thursday night and bring a dish to share. RSVP on Facebook to make sure you secure a seat. These dinners get bigger each month, but we will make sure you have a seat if you register online now.

Who Else Needs This?

Oh…and I bet you can think of someone in your life who is concerned about dementia and might be looking for a fun and effective way to protect their brain. Take a few seconds right now to share this article on your favorite social media channel. You might be surprised at who needs it right now. Thank you for helping me get the word out.

“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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