Dance Should Be Part of Your Exercise Routine — Here's Why

It makes your mind sharper, your body slimmer, and your spirit more resilient. Yes, dear reader, you should be dancing.

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I was having one of those days at work, and by six o'clock all I wanted was a stool at my neighborhood bar and a good friend to listen to me kvetch. Usually that would be my buddy Tara, but since she was on mom duty, she invited me — janky attitude and all — over to her place instead.

It's a good thing she did. Tara's 10-year-old daughter had been blasting Spotify, but there's only so much One Direction a woman over 35 can take, so we grown folks decided to cure up our own music — '80s pop and old-school hip-hop. Before long, Tara and I were having an impromptu house party in her living room. We laughed. We sweated. We danced – Lord, did we dance. We Carlton-ed. We grapevined to the left. We grapevined to the right. We body-rolled.

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I'd been ready to curse the name of every Tom, Dick, and Jane who'd pissed me off that day, but as soon as I started throwing my hands in the air and waving them like I just didn't care, the work worries vanished, and my body, which I don't move nearly as often as I should, was practically humming. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was tapping into one of humanity's oldest and surest pick-me-ups. Dancing comes to us naturally; a 2010 study found that even at 5 months old, babies wiggle in time to music. And though scientists can't say for sure how or why it evolved — our ancestors may have used dance to communicate with each other, or even the gods — we're all the better for it. Busting a move is tied to a greater sense of well-being and a raft of health benefits large and small.

For me, dance is now part of another special category: cardio that doesn't make me want to cry. At 39, I'm at my bigger-than-I've-ever-been weight (a few bagels shy of 200 pounds). In my twenties, I ran three miles a day five times a week. Now when I try hitting the track, all I hear is my own relentless nay-saying: You can't even jog a quarter-of-a-mile, Penny. Your knees hurt? Your knees didn't used to hurt! Look at what you've done to yourself! Yet when I was rocking out in Tara's living room, the inner voice had kinder things to say: Aw, snap! Look at you go, girl. That's the thing about dancing — it makes it easy to root for yourself. In fact, some studies have found that dancing is better at boosting your mood than conventional workouts, thanks in part to this one-two-three punch: music (which triggers our brain's reward center), movement (which brings on the endorphins), and self-expression (that nice feeling when you let you be you).

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Since that night at Tara's house, I've been hunting for other opportunities to get my groove on, up signed up for Zumba and Bass Body aerobics (picture lots of hip thrusting to Beyoncé). In class, I've even dared to take a spot in the front row near the mirror, because when I see my reflection clearly, I see myself more benevolently. That kind of inner voice says, Whoo-wee! You're moving. You're sweating. And wait — you're also smiling and having fun!

SO, WHAT DOES SCIENCE SAY?

Your Brain on Dance

Oh so agile. Because dancing requires constant learning, decision making, and creativity, it helps you build new neutral connections that keep your brain nimble. It also appears to strengthen the networks in the brain that help us focus. More proof that cutting a rug is good for the mind: A New England Journal of Medicine study found that dancing on the regular reduced the risk of dementia among older adults.

This Party Melts Pounds

G'bye, treadmill! When the American Council on Exercise hooked up Zumba participants to heart-rate monitors, they found that the class functions a lot like interval training, with its mix of low- and high-intensity moves. That mean you could burn more calories shaking it than doing a steady-state exercise like jogging. Besides — and this is key — if your workout feels like a treat, you're way more likely to do it.

Bring on the Buzz

Dancing sets off your brain's feel-good hormones, and getting social with it, by partnering up or taking a class, can bring its own boost. A 2008 study found that while a bunch of different exercises all helped cardiac patients improve their health, dancing made them the happiest.

DANCE DANCE REVOLUTIONARY

Cool new dance trends are always on the horizon. (Remember when you thought Zumba was a kind of vacuum cleaner?) If you're up for an adventure, give these a spin: BollyX, a high-intensity Bollywood-inspired dance workout that is so, so fun; and Bokwa, a cardio blend of hip-hop, South African-style movements, and step aerobics that's already popular in the UK.

STRETCH LIKE A DANCER

Stretching makes it easier to move it, move it without injury, and helps you look your best, too: You stand straighter and taller (and seem slimmer) when your muscles are more limber. We asked Glenn Allen Sims, a star in the world-renowned Alvin Alley American Dance Theater (this troupe is famous for its gloriously athletic bodies), how Aileyites get the kinks out. Try these three moves. Hold each for 30 seconds, and do on both sides.

1. Basic Spinal Twist: Sitting on the floor with your right leg stretched out, bend your left leg and cross it over your right thigh. Raise your right arm straight up and twist your torso to the left, looking over your left shoulder.

2. Cambré Side Stretch: Standing tall, with feet parallel, cross your right foot over your left foot. Next, lift your left arm over your head and reach sideways to the right, curving your upper torso into a C shape.

3. "Number 4" Stretch: Sit with legs shaped like the number 4: right leg bent and open to the side, left leg straight ahead. Lift your arms overhead and slowly round your back as you stretch over your left leg.

This story originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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