06 October 2017

Dance Versus Fitness Training

Welcome back. Vicki and I danced at a wedding in August. We hadn’t danced in years, at least I hadn’t. A year or two ago, she confessed that George had her doing the polka when they were alone in the shop, after he made the coffee for the Saturday morning coffee klatch. George is about 90, and he makes phenomenal matchstick structures when he isn’t making coffee or dancing the polka.

Growing up, before and through high school, I was not a good dancer. I never learned how to jitterbug or whatever we called it. And though I liked slow dancing, as I learned repeatedly through life, I wasn’t cut out to be a leader.

I metamorphosed in college when the twist, jerk, mashed potato and other non-contact dances swept the country in the early 1960s. Freedom of expression! Who needed a partner? I became a very good dancer.  

Uma Thurman and John Travolta doing the twist plus a few other dances in Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. (Photo from video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ik-RsDGPI5Y)

All this personal history is going somewhere, of course. As you might expect even if you missed the blog post title, I happened upon a recent study about dancing. This one compared the anti-aging effects of dance training with those of fitness training. Guess which was better for healthy seniors. A little brain science will help.

The Hippocampus
The brain’s hippocampus is key to memory, learning and spatial navigation. Although the hippocampus is affected by normal and pathological (e.g., Alzheimer’s) aging, it’s one of the few brain regions that can generate new neurons throughout our lives. Producing those new neurons might help to slow cognitive losses.

How can we do that? Exercise is one way. Research has shown higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels are associated with larger volumes of the hippocampus in late adulthood, and larger hippocampal volumes may, in turn, contribute to better memory function.

Independent of cardiorespiratory fitness, motor skill learning and motor fitness that come with dancing can also affect hippocampal volume.

Study Parameters
A team of scientists led by researchers from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases set out to compare how dance and fitness training affect the volumes of the hippocampus and hippocampal subfields and, in addition, balance.

The researchers screened and assigned 52 volunteers to either an experimental dance group or a traditional fitness group. After 18 months of training, only half of the volunteers remained, 14 in the dance group and 12 in the fitness group. Those who completed the training did not differ significantly in age (average 68), gender, body mass index or education.

The fitness training followed recommended health sport guidelines and addressed endurance, strength-endurance and flexibility. The dance training included both permanent and changing choreographies, focusing on turns, head-spins, shifts of center of gravity, single-leg stances, skips, hops and different dance steps to challenge the balance system. 

For the first six months, training for both groups lasted 90 minutes, twice a week. That had to be reduced to once a week for the last 12 months.

Pre- and post-training measures of hippocampal subfield volumes were derived from magnetic resonance images. Those for balance were obtained with the Sensory Organization Test, which assesses the three sensory systems--somatosensory, visual, and vestibular.

Shall We Dance or Work Out?
Insofar as the hippocampus volume is linked to memory and learning, dance training was shown to be at least as beneficial as fitness training for slowing cognitive losses. Beyond that, the study found that dance training excelled for improving balance.

Dance and fitness training both led to increases in hippocampal subfield volumes; however, the dancers showed volume increases in more subfields. Further, only the dancers showed an increased balance composite score, improving in all three sensory systems.

Wrap Up
Vicki and I should probably start dancing again (not the polka), though I doubt I could handle the dance training given in the study. That seemed rather intense, more like brain training. I would just want to dance, not think too much about it and take whatever anti-aging effects I can get. Thanks for stopping by.

The bride and bride’s father dance with freedom of expression at a wedding Rachel photographed. (www.rachelphilipson.com)

Dance vs fitness training study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience journal: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnhum.2017.00305/full

Article on study on ScienceDaily website: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170825124902.htm
Example of earlier article on dancing versus exercise: www.hss.edu/newsroom_health-benefits-dance-fitness-trend-dancing-with-the-stars.asp

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