Whenever the super-stressed residents on Grey’s Anatomy bust out in an impromptu dance party, it must be because they know how healing it is—they are doctors, after all (well, TV ones, at least)! Truth is, shaking your booty is remarkably healthy, and not just in a fitness-and-weight-loss kind of way. Dancing can boost your brainpower, improve your outlook, grow your social circle, and protect your most important organs . . . even if you have no rhythm.
Born with a Beat
Ever wonder why the second you hear, say, Beyoncé’s latest chart topper, you automatically start tapping your feet or otherwise moving to the beat? “It’s an instinctive response,” says Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a music and sports researcher and coauthor of Inside Sport Psychology. Yup, you’re hardwired to sync up your own movements to music, possibly because even primitive cultures used rhythmic movements to express themselves. Richard Ebstein, Ph.D., a professor in the psychology department at the National University of Singapore, adds that it’s a universal phenomenon. Even birds and bees use dance to communicate.
The instinctual rhythm response starts in your brain, where musical vibrations light up timing circuits that prompt you to reflexively bust a move. These same circuits are intertwined with your brain’s communication and memory systems, which is why songs can trigger emotional reactions—and why you may find yourself singing, swaying, and choking up to “My Boo,” despite yourself.
But while it’s true that everyone “feels” the beat in this way, it’s also true that some people’s mind-beat connection is a little stronger. Your dance-crazy pals who seem as if they were born to boogie? They might well have been: Experts believe that genetics play a role in complex behavioral traits (e.g., having an affinity for shaking it like Shakira). The trick is, environmental factors also have an impact. If you don’t have much opportunity to dance, you may never know that you have a natural talent for it.
Get on the Floor—for Your Health
You don’t have to have moves like Jagger to reap any of dancing’s health-enhancing benefits. “The brain rewires itself based on use,” explains Joe Verghese, M.D., a professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. The more time you spend on the dance floor, the more you train your brain to open those feel-good floodgates—and the more you’ll start to amp up your overall well-being.
To wit, a study in Circulation: Heart Failure found that people with cardiac conditions who danced for just 20 minutes three times a week saw their heart health improve significantly more than those who stuck to traditional cardio workouts. Dancing can also help make your skeleton strong, per the National Osteoporosis Foundation, and it does wonders for your overall makeup: When researchers compared dancers with nondancers, they found evidence that dancing may preserve both motor skills and perceptual abilities.
The ample flow of mood-improving chemicals that dancing releases means, of course, that raising the roof can elevate your mental state. Just one lively dance session can slay depression more than vigorous exercise or listening to upbeat music, according to a study in The Arts in Psychotherapy. Getting jiggy with others also leads to less stress and stronger social bonds, key factors in both mental and physical health, says Verghese.
But perhaps the coolest part about grooving is that it saves your mind—literally. Dancing gives your noggin’s memory, coordination, and focus areas an intense workout, leading to stronger synapses and beefed-up gray matter. The result: Dancers can be sharper in the short term and less likely to succumb to brain diseases in the long run. A New England Journal of Medicine study of 11 physical activities found that dancing was the only one that lowered dementia risk by a whopping 76 percent.
It’s never too late to augment your health by getting down, whether you start small by rocking out while cleaning your digs or go big and sign up for a class. However you choose to move, you can glean the biggest rewards by doing it for 20 to 30 minutes most days of the week. What are you waiting for? Go cut a rug.
Of course, you could push “play” and flail around in your underwear. Or you can take it up a notch. “The beauty of dance is there are so many kinds to choose from,” says dance medicine specialist Elizabeth Larkam of San Francisco. “There’s a type for everybody and every need.” She suggests trying out one of these five (at a gym, with a DVD or video game, or at a nightclub in your town).
Best For Newbies: Line Dancing
It ain’t all country: Modern classes are set to tunes like soul, R&B;, and hip-hop. “The rhythm is generally easy to follow, and the movements are repetitive, so you can catch on quickly,” says Larkam.
Best For Burning Calories: Zumba
The salsa-type shimmy you see on Dancing with the Stars scorches cals. For something similar but way more accessible, check out the wildly popular Zumba. “The pace is intense—you can burn 250 calories in 30 minutes,” says Larkam.
Best For Boosting Your Mood: Swing
Swing dancing is done with a partner, and that “touch factor”—along with high-energy music—helps trigger a rush of the mood-elevating hormone oxytocin.
Best For Strength: Pole Dancing
Yes, really. Most types of dancing are ace at toning your lower body, but doing it at the pole also gives you added upper-body and arm strength.
Best For Stress Relief: DIY
Grab your pals, hit the club, and let loose however you want. “Social dancing to any upbeat music you love lets you reap the benefits of camaraderie and completely blow out stress,” says Larkam.