The music starts, and you can’t help it. Your toes start tapping, and before you know it, you’re dancing. It’s a great way to exercise, meet new people if you take a class or hit a night spot, and just have fun. So, what’s going on inside your body when you get moving to your favorite music? And can dancing help keep you healthy in the long run?
Dancing is a form of exercise, so it affects the body in many of the same ways that other types of exercise do. That includes increasing heart rate, making the heart pump more blood and boosting the amount of oxygen you use. Dancing also increases the amount of a hormone called insulin. Insulin helps the body absorb a sugar called glucose that powers up your cells and keeps you energized.
Aston McCullough, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the director of the Laboratory for the Scientific Study of Dance. His lab teaches computers to understand how we move to find out how dance affects our bodies and our mental health.
“I think more and more people are waking up to the power of dance … and I think it’s very exciting,” he said.
Dancing, like other kinds of physical activity, can help keep your heart healthy. A study from 2016 found that medium-intensity dancing was associated with less risk of dying from heart disease compared to medium-intensity walking. McCullough also said there’s evidence that dance improves balance and flexibility, though it’s not clear whether people who dance just happen to be more flexible to begin with.
And, dance, like other forms of exercise, is associated with positive changes in mental health. Another study found that dance was related to positive effects on mood and well-being. This could be due to the act of dancing itself, as well as its social aspect. Dancing with friends gives you a “two-for-one” benefit by allowing you to work out and connect with other people at the same time.
From ballet to hip-hop, each dance style has a different set of movements and energy levels, making it hard to form one definitive statement about how dance helps keep you healthy. But for now, according to McCullough, it’s safe to say that dance is good for the body in more ways than one. So, when you’re itching to let loose to your favorite song, go for it. Your body will thank you later.
Adithi Ramakrishnan is an undergraduate student at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, majoring in neuroscience and minoring in creative writing. She was the 2021 American Physiological Society-sponsored AAAS Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellow at North Carolina Public Radio.