The Health Benefits of Dance

Need a new workout routine but don’t want to join a gym? We’ve got the answer! It’s time to boogie to the beat of your favorite tune. Dance will keep you moving and grooving, boost fitness, improve insulin sensitivity, and help manage blood glucose levels. It can even help you slim down while building metabolism-boosting muscle mass. If you enjoy music and moving to the rhythm, dancing is the workout for you.

Health benefits of dance

Whether you dance with a partner, in a class, or in your own bedroom, moving to music can offer impressive health benefits. “Any form of dance may help to reduce insulin resistance and improve blood glucose management,” says Rachel Portnof, RD, of To The Pointe Nutrition. “In addition, dance elevates mood and energy levels.” The benefits of dance extend far beyond enhancing daily diabetes self-care. Dance counts as weight-bearing exercise, which may also build muscle strength and bone density.

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Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes have been associated with an increased risk of osteoporosis and bone fractures. A review of diabetes and bone health published in the journal Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews found that people with diabetes were more likely to suffer fractures of the hip, foot, and spine than individuals without diabetes. Weight-bearing activities such as dance help improve bone health and fight bone loss. By strengthening bone through regular exercise, osteoporosis may be delayed or prevented. A study published in Nutrición Hospitalaria found that physical activity based on rhythmic and choreographic activities in overweight individuals may prevent bone loss. There are so many reasons for you to give dancing a whirl — and a twirl!

In addition to strengthening the body, dance may also boost the mind. A recent study found that elderly individuals with mild cognitive impairment who began ballroom dancing on a regular basis not only experienced slower cognitive decline but improved mental functioning. Emily Coles, a competitive ballroom dance teacher who has Type 1 diabetes, agrees that dance benefits both the body and the mind and has seen it in her own students. “I worked with a student who began ballroom dancing as part of treatment for a head injury and used partner dancing as a form of communication.” Emily was excited to share that her student’s ability to communicate improved dramatically as she continued to dance with various partners. She points out that the cognitive benefit may not come entirely from the physical aspect of dance either. “In dancing, specifically in partner dancing, there is a large social component,” says Coles. “You are practicing how to communicate with another person, how to relate to music, and how to express your emotions through movement.” This social connection may positively affect stress and mood while also helping you think of dance as more of a social event rather than exercise, which may just make it easier to stick with long-term.

Start at any age or fitness level

Think you are too old or unfit to get started? Nothing could be further from the truth. “Dance is for all ages and all fitness levels,” says Billy Blanks Jr., founder of Dance It Out, who points out that the oldest student in his studio is 94 years young. “Dance is one of the best forms of exercise because you don’t feel like you are exercising. You are simply having a good time, focusing on the steps and enjoying life.” Dancing for fitness may be even more effective than hitting the gym at times. ”I see many people come to dance after becoming bored at the gym or frustrated from the lack of results,” Blanks explains. “If you are trying to work out, but don’t feel like you are seeing the benefits and are at risk of burnout, it may be time to consider a new form of exercise, such as dance.”

Thanks to reality shows such as Dancing with The Stars and So You Think You Can Dance becoming mainstream media hits, more individuals are starting to consider learning to dance as a new way to enhance fitness and health. If you have been tuning into your favorite dance show but feel intimidated by their fancy footwork and fit physiques, don’t let that hold you back. “Going to the gym or starting a new fitness regimen may feel intimidating,” Blanks says, “but with dance, you can come in with what you are comfortable with.” At Dance It Out, which has locations worldwide, he stresses that dance is for all levels and you don’t have to know technique to have a great time and benefit from the exercise. “Don’t be hard on yourself. If you start and you are not yet jumping like the other dancers or picking up the steps, so what,” states Blanks. “I always tell people to go at your own pace. If you only get one step today, that’s progress. It’s about feeling comfortable, connecting with those around you, and having a good time.”

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Always take precautions

Although dance is a wonderful form of exercise for individuals with diabetes, like any form of exercise, it can pose risks. Foot care is extremely important for everyone with diabetes, but for dancers who are at a greater risk of developing blisters and foot wounds, monitoring the feet regularly is essential. Sharing your diabetes diagnosis with your dance teacher is a personal decision, but if you are prone to hypoglycemia or are taking insulin, you should notify those who exercise around you about the signs of hypoglycemia and the treatment protocol to prevent potential issues.
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Melissa’s story

Whether you want to start dancing just for fun or with the goal of performing one day, the practice can offer something for everyone. For those with diabetes, beyond the fun of learning a new form of movement, dance can have a life-changing impact. Melissa Vitti, a 28-year-old teacher from New York, remembers the day she was diagnosed with prediabetes vividly. “I was very young, only 24 years old, and at my annual physical I was told I had prediabetes. It was very nerve-wracking as both my father and maternal grandparents had diabetes as well.” At 460 pounds, Melissa knew she wanted to get on track and prevent a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, but she struggled to get active. “I found the gym boring. It wasn’t a sustainable form of exercise for me,” Vitti says. “I had been following Dancing with The Stars for years and come from a musical background. Dancing made sense for me — it was something I knew I could enjoy and stick with.” Now 180 pounds lighter and an award-winning competitive ballroom dancer, Melissa is far more confident in herself, her blood glucose is officially in the normal range, and she is no longer classified as having prediabetes. “Dance has given me so much. It has brought out the best parts of me and has pushed me past the limitations I have put on myself.”

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Calories burned during dance

The following estimates are based on a 150-pound person after 30 minutes of dancing.

Aerobics
low impact
205 calories

Low-intensity dancing
slow, waltz, foxtrot
112 calories

Moderate-intensity dancing
disco, ballroom, square
205 calories

High-intensity dancing
fast, ballet, twist
223 calories

Source: Harvard Health Publications, March 2017: https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-of-leisure-and-routine-activities
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Susan’s story

Susan Innes, 66, of Stonewall, Manitoba, shares a similar story. “I discovered I had Type 2 diabetes by accident. I was asked to complete a physical and get blood work before joining a wellness center, and found out my A1C was 15%!” Her physician instructed her to lose weight and begin exercising to better manage her blood glucose levels. “I hate exercising with machines,” says Innes, who weighed 225 pounds when she was diagnosed. “As a child, I used to dance to the radio with my brothers for entertainment. Dancing always made me happy. It lifts your mood and your spirits.” Her love of music and dance led to her join a water aerobics dance group at her wellness center. She had osteoarthritis, so dancing in the water provided an effective workout while placing less strain on her joints. To date, dance, along with dietary changes, has helped her lose 75 pounds and reduce her A1C to 5.3%. She now enjoys dancing in the pool with her granddaughter. “I let her play aerobics instructor and we get the whole family involved.”

The first steps

Ready to get moving? It can be incredibly simple to get started with dance. “If you have never danced before and don’t know what style of dance you want to try, start by thinking about what type of music you love to listen to and then figure out what dance it is,” says Coles, who points out that for those new to exercise and dance, connecting with a qualified instructor is key. “Consider working with a qualified professional dance teacher one-on-one first before jumping into a group. Instruction from a dance teacher individually can show you how to move safely and stretch correctly to reduce injury risk.”

Warming up and cooling down before and after every dance workout is essential to prevent injury and reduce muscle soreness. If you are new to exercise, increased muscle soreness after exercise may deter you from being consistent with your new workout routine. But don’t try to forgo the warmup or the cooldown to save time. Warming up your muscles before jumping into a dance routine and taking a few minutes at the end of dance to allow your body to cool back down may help ward off muscle soreness, prevent injury, and keep you dancing on a regular basis.

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Post-performance dance snacks

These filling snacks, which contain both complex carbohydrates and protein, can be a great way to refuel after a dance workout. Feel free to adjust the portions to meet your needs.

2 tablespoons of classic hummus and 1 whole sliced red bell pepper: 100 calories, 11.3 grams carbs

Rolled-up thin-sliced turkey with avocado and tomato: 109 calories, 7.2 carbs

Cottage cheese topped with walnuts: 166 calories,
4.8 grams carbs

4 whole grain or quinoa crackers with 1 tablespoon natural almond butter: 175 calories, 15 grams carbs

1 ounce (1 slice) cheddar cheese and 1 small Red Delicious apple: 202 calories, 21.6 grams carbs

4 ounces plain low-fat Greek yogurt with cup sliced almonds: 240 calories,
10.5 grams carbs
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Balancing your blood glucose

Dancing for exercise can be an effective strategy for managing blood glucose levels, but learning to fuel your new workout is key. Eating too little before dancing or not eating enough afterward can put you at risk for hypoglycemia. On the other hand, if you become too hungry after exercise, you may overeat and run the risk of spiking your blood glucose levels.

“Eating smaller frequent meals and snacks throughout the day may be better than choosing three large meals as this allows you to fuel your body both before and after your dance workout,” Portnof says. Including a variety of complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain bread, whole fruit and Greek yogurt, balanced with lean protein and plant-based fats at each meal and snack, may best promote optimal glucose levels. “Always keep a snack on hand in your bag in case of emergencies,” Portnof advises. If you are taking medications to lower your blood glucose levels or use insulin, keeping a fast-acting carbohydrate on hand in case of low blood glucose levels is essential. Options such as a juice box, hard candy, or glucose tablets make excellent choice because they have a long shelf-life and do not need to be refrigerated.

When starting any new form of exercise, make sure to check your blood glucose levels often, especially if you are prone to hypoglycemic episodes. You can experience post-exercise–induced hypoglycemia for as long as 24 hours after exercise, so regular testing can help you understand your body’s response to exercise and determine the best times for you to eat your meals and snacks. Before starting any exercise routine, make sure your physician has cleared you for exercise and discuss your pre- and post-exercise glucose level goals with your diabetes care team. Keep your team informed of changes in your glucose levels as you begin to exercise. You may find that as you exercise more, your need for certain medications may be reduced as well.

Want to learn more about incorporating fun physical activity into your daily routine? Read “So You Think You Can’t Dance?” “Making Exercise Fun,” and “Making Exercise More Fun.”