Dance Fitness Improves Brain Function, so Let Your Body Move to the Music

Photo: Getty Images/ Tom Werner
Coachella is officially in the rearview mirror (some may sigh; some may say thank god). But that doesn't mean that you need to bid goodbye to dancing your heart out with your friends and reaping all the sweaty benefits of busting a move. You can tell just by how sweaty the dance floor gets on a Saturday night that getting down to Cardi B and Ariana Grande can be a workout just as much as any other cardio-based activity.

Yes, it gets your heart rate up and tones your body (twerking is basically a level up from holding a squat), but the benefits don't stop there. It turns out that when you take the time to learn dance moves—like in a dance-based fitness class—there are a lot of science-backed benefits for your brain, too. Intrigued? Here, two experts in the space go deep into the hidden benefits.

Keep reading to find out how dance-based fitness classes not only work your body, but your brain, too.

1. It strengthens neuroplasticity

There are some workouts, like running or spinning, that you can do and just completely zone out. Learning choreography in a dance class can be meditative too, but in a different way. "When it comes to dance, you have to be cognitively ready to function," points out DanceBody founder Katia Pryce. "It doesn’t take the same amount of mental processing to hop on a bike and just spin the wheels."

Just like learning a musical instrument, language, or any other new skill, learning dance moves takes focus and activates the hippocampus—the part of the brain that's responsible for emotions and memory. Why is this such a big deal? Keeping the hippocampus engaged is key for preventing cognitive decline and diseases such as 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—or the formation of new neural connections.

It's a major reason why Pryce consistently switches up the moves in her classes: "If you do the same moves over and over again, your body gets used to them, but your brain does too," she says. "You want to consistently be strengthening both in new ways."

2. It activates the brain's reward center

You can get those feel-good endorphins pumping with any cardio-based workout, but dance, as it turns out, has a whole bonus layer. "A lot of studies have shown that music and dance activate primal reward centers in the brain," Pryce says. "Even if you’re just walking through a park and you hear someone beating a drum, you look in that direction because you recognize the beat of the base on a primal level." 

Kristin Sudeikis, the founder and creative director of newly opened Forward_Space, echoes her saying, "dancing is in our DNA. It's found in every culture in the world." But why exactly does it activate the reward center? Partially because accomplishing something, like mastering a move, feels good. But you remember how dance activates the hippocampus? Sudeikis says that plays a part, too. "The act of dancing can subconsciously remind people of how they felt other times they were dancing, like at their prom, wedding, or out with their friends because it activates the part of the brain where emotions and memory are held," she says. All these things—the endorphins, mastering a skill, and emotional activation—are powerful, even if you don't even realize they're happening.

3. It connects you to everyone else in the room

Sudeikis says there's also something really powerful that happens when you're learning something as a group, and it's way more profound than you may think. "When you're dancing together, the brain actually relaxes because you don't feel so alone," she says. "It recognizes that what's happening is a communal experience." In science-speak, this is called "mirror neurons," where your neurons start working to mirror what the people around you are doing. You know how when someone smiles at you, it's almost automatic to smile back? It's similar to that, and it makes you feel part of something bigger.

"Now more than ever people are looking for human connection," Sudeikis says. "We're in our own little worlds just on our phones so much that we actually crave it. That's a big reason why dancing as a group can just feel so good."

That's not to say everyone is looking at you and judging your moves. "The reality is no one is looking at you because they're so focused on the instructor," Pryce says. So if you want to get all these amazing brain and body benefits but feel self-conscious walking into a class, she says to leave the perfectionism at the door. "The first thing you have to do is be kind to yourself," she says. "Then, just focus on small victories. Maybe you get the feet moves down first and later you can focus on the arms. Take it one thing at a time!"

And you know what, if learning the dance moves doesn't come easy for you, just focus on how the challenge is making your brain that much stronger. Just ask our video producer Ella Dove, who went to three dance-based classes back-to-back-to-back.

Originally published on November 24, 2018; updated April 23, 2019, with additional reporting by Kells McPhillips.
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