If you’d rather crank up the music and boogie down than spend a single minute in a gym, we have some good news—dancing may improve brain health more than regular aerobic workouts.

Exercise has long been recognized as a smart way to help prevent age-related cognitive declines—including mental impairments that are caused (or worsened) by Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Questions have remained, however, regarding the type of exercise that works best.

Do we have a winner? Dancing may offer special benefits, according to a report published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. In this study, researchers looked at two groups of adults with an average age of 68. Some of the people in the study slogged through traditional endurance workouts, such as cycling or Nordic walking. Others danced.

After 18 months of weekly exercise, people in both groups showed increases in the volume of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that plays a key role in memory and learning—and the same brain region that’s often affected by dementia. But the dancers had an edge. They showed more improvement in balance than those in the workout group.

Why is dancing such an effective way to help your brain stay sharp?

Part of the benefit from dancing comes from the mental workout—memorizing arm movements, step patterns, rhythms, etc., explains Kathrin Rehfeld, MD, of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and the lead author of the study.

In the study, dance routines were changed every two weeks—for example, mambo, cha-cha and jazz square—which challenged the dancer’s balance system and required mental effort to learn the choreographies.

Bottom Line’s takeaway: “Dance provides the ultimate cross-fit for your brain,” says Marc E. Agronin, MD, a geriatric psychiatrist at Miami Jewish Health in Florida and the author The End of Old Age: Living a Longer, More Purposeful Life. The aerobic conditioning and endurance promote optimal blood flow to the brain and the release of neural growth factors. “There’s also musical inspiration combined with coordinated movements that enhance memory, balance, dexterity and visuospatial abilities,” he continues.

Another advantage: Dancing, for many people, is more fun than a sweaty gym workout…and it’s one more tool for challenging your body as well as your mind. Plus, there’s less risk for injury than there is with many other physical activities.

If you’d like to start dancing, Dr. Agronin suggests Zumba Gold, a modified, lower-intensity version of traditional Zumba classes. Typically offered in classes, it provides a highly stimulating and fun way to exercise with multiple forms of upbeat music and dance. You may even be able to find an instructor who will provide one-on-one instruction. And don’t forget ballroom dancing. It’s another great way to boost memory, coordination and socialization with partners, says Dr. Agronin.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to kick up your heels!

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