How Dancing Gives Your Brain and Mood a Big BoostIt doesn’t matter if you are a professional dancer or if you just like to move on the dance floor on Saturday night. It doesn’t matter if you like to tango or break dance. Dancing, of any kind, combines physical exercise with the positive power of music and social engagement. Together, these yield major mental health and brain benefits.

In fact, it has such beneficial effects on the brain that dancing is increasingly used as therapy for developmental disorders like Down’s syndrome, mood disorders such as depression, and neurological disorders as in the case of schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and dementia.  Here is why it’s so good for your brain.

Dancing Gets Your Brain and Body Involved

Some workouts, like running on a treadmill or spinning, you can do and completely turn your brain off. When you exercise in ways that disengage your brain from actively participating, you’re getting the physical benefits of increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain and the release of feel-good, stress-reducing neurochemicals, but you’re losing out on cognitive gains.

In How To Work Your Brain in Your Workout (and Why It Matters), I write:

While doing anything physical is still way better than sitting on the couch, using exercise machines that involve a limited range of identical, repetitive movements takes your brain offline, asking very little of it. Doing the same thing over and over again, in life and in your fitness routine, is the enemy of brain health and physical neurological movement, flexibility, and control. It’s like asking your brain to solve the same crossword puzzle a thousand times.”

Like playing a musical instrument, dancing requires complex cognitive coordination and function. Studies using PET imaging have identified regions of the brain that contribute to dance learning and performance. These regions include the motor cortex, somatosensory cortex, basal ganglia, and cerebellum.

Dancing Activates the Brain’s Reward Center

As with any cardio-based workout, dancing causes the release of feel-good neurochemicals, endorphins.  Dance combined with music, as it turns out, has the added bonus of activating the primal reward centers in the brain. One study concluded that dance constitutes a “pleasure double play” in your brain. Music stimulates the brain’s reward centers, while dance activates its sensory and motor circuits.

Not only does dancing stimulate the reward circuit in your brain, but it also activates the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain primarily responsible for emotions and memory. Whenever you dance, it can subconsciously remind you of good feelings at other times when doing it, like at your wedding or just having a good time with friends. 

Dance Lowers Dementia Risk

Just like learning a musical instrument, language, or any other new skill, learning dance moves takes focus and activates the hippocampus. Keeping the hippocampus engaged is key for preventing cognitive decline and dementia. One study found that when people between the ages of 63 and 80 were taught dance moves, it had a lasting effect on their brain’s neuroplasticity — the formation of new neural connections.

Another study investigated the effect various leisure activities had on the risk of dementia in the elderly. The researchers looked at the effects of 11 different kinds of physical activity, including cycling, golf, swimming, and tennis. Of all the activities studied, only dance lowered participants’ risk of dementia. According to the researchers, dancing uniquely combined stimulation from physical and mental effort as well as social interaction.

Dancing Gives You Social Brain Benefits

Humans are social animals who need contact with one another. Your brain needs it. Dance is a social activity that connects you with other people. When you’re dancing with others, your brain actually relaxes because you are in a group. It recognizes that what’s happening is a communal experience which activates mirror neurons in your brain. Your brain likes feeling like it’s part of something bigger.

Mirror neurons are circuits of neurons in the prefrontal cortex of your brain which subconsciously map out and follow the minds and actions of others. Mirror neurons play a vital role in human interaction, behavior, and thought processes. The article, Science Says: Dancing Makes You Happy, explains it like this:

It may be an art form, but it’s also a great opportunity for socialization. Since the very beginning, dance has been used as a social activity that connects us with others. You’ll make lasting bonds with your instructor or choreographer, with your partner or other dancers, and even with audience members. You don’t even have to speak out loud to create those connections with other people. Simply doing those steps in sync with other people can be a shared euphoric experience that you won’t soon forget. When you get social, you feel happy. Perhaps it’s the endorphins that are being produced when you interact with like-minded people — laughing, chatting, enjoying time together. But it also may be something even deeper. 

Having the opportunity to partake in an emotional catharsis with everyone else in the room is a unique experience that can help you bond with a complete stranger or deepen the connection to your loved one. As humans, we constantly seek out those meaningful connections with others. Dance provides a way for us to relate to others on both a physical and emotional level in a way that other situations may not.”

Dancing Decreases Depression and Anxiety

Because dance is both a physical and emotional release, it’s ideal for people experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety. Studies show that dance, in particular, can decrease anxiety and boost mood more than other physical outlets. In one study, researchers had people with anxiety disorders participate in one of four activities: a modern-dance class, an exercise class, a music class, or a math class. Only the dance class significantly reduced anxiety.

One study involving teenagers with depression, anxiety, and stress found that those who attended dance classes two days per week showed significant improvement in their psychosomatic symptoms and self-reported that they felt happier. Other research found that when people with depression participated in salsa dancing, they had fewer negative thoughts, better concentration, and an improved sense of tranquility.

16 Comments

  1. I find this kind of research information so fascinating. I’m not a big dancer myself, but when I see the benefit, it make me think twice.

    • Ben Galloway Reply

      Very interesting article!
      Especially intrigued by the section comparing the 4 classes done by anxiety disorder sufferers. I am a pretty anxious person and am also very physical. Have done a fair bit of swing dancing in the past, but for the last couple years have primarily been a gym/fitness enthusiast….
      But your article makes me think I may need to swap my gym trainers for some dancing shoes!!

  2. I’ve not danced in a long time. Reading this post seems like a reminder for me to put on my dancing shoes! I find it fascinating that dance classes beat the other type of classes for anxiety reduction. Thank you for sharing about the research!

  3. I can relate, Evelyn, I used to love to dance and did it often. It’s been way too long. I need to put my dancing shoes on. 🙂

  4. Always loved to dance…and now you’ve got me thinking I need to get back to it. Thanks for the reminder and the research Debbie.

  5. Try Argentine Tango when you dance. It`s more effective than dancing apart as shown in the photo of this article. The movement, plus the coordination to music/rhythm, between two people, has been shown to help Parkinson`s patients.

  6. This reminds me of a euphoric experience I had in 2018 while traveling to Punta Cana. My spouse & I went for a drink in the lobby bar, where there happened to be a live DJ playing the “Casper Slide”. A room full of about 15 strangers from all different countries recognized this tune and all danced to the steps. My heart rate was pumping and I was almost giggling with glee from this shared human experience. It was a pretty cool 4 minutes.

    • That’s a perfect example of what the article is talking about. Sounds awesome. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  7. Actually it does matter what kind of dance one does. In agreement with Federic who wrote that tango is better than the dance featured in that rather unfortunately chosen picture for the story, dances that have some sort of structure and meaning are far superior to the brain and to the mind than just moving about. Studies have shown that certain types of folkdance is beneficial in learning math, (where rhythm and timing are key) and I suspect that this would also be true of formal, paired dancing. These kind of dances have also been important for forming social behavior for centuries.

    • Thank you for the additional information, Juliet. The image was not meant to imply the best type of dancing to benefit your brain.

  8. tl;dr: Being a dancer helped me during my recovery from a back injury that had me hospitalized for a week and a half and walking with the aid of a walker for while thereafter. (I am in my late 30s.)
    The short version of the full story:
    A little over a year and a half ago, I was doing some last-minute straightening up before lunch guests arrived. In the process, I inadvertently re-herniated a disc or two, and eventually could not stand or walk. I had to “cruise” along furniture and countertops or use folding chairs as “crutches” in order to do anything—even to go to the bathroom—so that I didn’t fall down or pass out from the crushing pain in my lower spine.
    After it became clear that waiting for the next available doctor or PT appointment was a waste of time (I had a history of disc herniation, but never this bad), I was eventually carried out of our apartment by a crew of medics and placed in an ambulance for one of the most excruciating rides of my life. Every bump and curve had me seeing stars. And my pain tolerance threshold is usually very high.
    More than once, I wondered whether this were a life-altering injury. Would I walk independently again? Would I be able to drive a car? Would I dance again?
    I was in rehearsals at the time for an annual charity dance spectacular. I ended up having to drop out of all of my dance numbers, as the doctors said there was no way I’d recover in time and be strong enough to perform. With the help of my co-choreographer, I eventually finished choreographing my number from a rocking chair, at least. Thankfully, by the time the show happened, I was well enough to walk out on stage as one of the emcees…without my walker. As part of the program, I described how dance is so powerful that it even benefited me when I couldn’t move.
    While I was stuck in a hospital bed for a week and a half, feeling bad for myself and severely disappointed and frustrated at having to drop out of performing in the show, I found that mentally going through the choreography of the various dances helped me immensely. Simply closing my eyes and *imagining* myself dancing to the music in my head minimized my stress, brought down my heart rate, calmed my breathing. It was remarkable.
    Fast-forward… I got better.
    I returned to dancing this year. Standing onstage again as a dancer this time around was a wonderfully emotional experience, knowing how far I’ve come since that hospital bed. (A particular blessing from our daily morning prayers has extra significance for me now, as well. Loosely translated, it expresses thanks to God for “straightening the bent.” Yup…that was me for a while.) Every step, spin, jump, and gesture is that much more valuable to me now; I don’t take my mobility for granted for a moment. Dance is such a precious tool, and I am so lucky to have it at my disposal, ready to use at a moment’s notice. Truth be told…anyone can use it. Anyone. Anywhere.
    For example, we use dance as a stress-buster at home; sometimes, there’s nothing better than a spontaneous dance party in the kitchen to get everyone out of a funk and into a better mood. I think I’ll go start one now…

    • What a wonderful and uplifting story, Shifra. You were so smart to visualize the dance in your mind. I have no doubt that your brain and body benefitted. I hope the herniated disks have healed and do not act up again. However, if they do, you have the tools to handle it. Keep on dancing! 🙂

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