Dance Workouts: What Counts, Health Benefits, and Getting Started – Everyday Health
You don’t have to be fit or flexible to dance. In fact, you don’t even need a natural rhythm. With dance workouts, you can build fitness, flexibility, and coordination, all while moving to the beat of your own drum.
Read on to learn how to reap the fun and challenge of dance workouts.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter if you stomp it out at a studio hip-hop class or jam to your favorite tunes in your living room: If your heart rate hastens (and you start to sweat), whatever type of dance you’re doing (and wherever you’re doing it), you’re working out.
That said, structured dance workout classes are sometimes created by professionals with fitness expertise to deliver certain exercise benefits.
“The way I program dance cardio is that it’s pretty repetitive, and it’s aerobic, so the intention is to get your heart rate up,” says Megan Roup, a former professional dancer and an ACE-certified personal trainer who founded the The Sculpt Society, a dance cardio workout app. But hitting the dance floor with friends, or busting a move in your living room, can certainly be a workout, too, she adds — even if that’s not your intention.
Many dance workouts are designed to build muscular strength, mobility, and flexibility. Dancing uses most of your muscles, but primarily the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves, says Judson MacDonald, an ACE-certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in Durham, North Carolina, who is currently a learning and development specialist for Les Mills International.
You may not reap the same benefits if you’re just dancing for fun.
How intense a workout you get from dancing depends on the style of dance you’re doing and how long you do it. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that slower dance styles, like many types of ballroom dancing, are often the same intensity as walking or other moderate-intensity workouts; faster-paced dance types, like salsa or cardio dance, can often be the equivalent of a more vigorous workout, like jogging or swimming.
Dance is chock-full of potential perks for both the body and mind.
To start with, you need to use both your brain and your body to dance, Roup says — particularly when it comes to learning choreography or dance routines. “Your brain has to be really focused,” she says.
This carries unique benefits for older adults. According to a review and meta-analysis published in December 2018 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, dance improves working memory, cognitive flexibility (the mental ability to adapt to new or changing events), and learning in older adults with varying levels of cognitive ability. Researchers suggest that moderate-intensity dance is optimal for older adults.
Dance may also benefit people with neurodegenerative diseases. For example, research published in July 2021 in Brain Sciences found that people with mild Parkinson’s disease who participated in weekly dance classes for three years showed slower symptom progression than those who didn’t.
And for everyone, because dance is an aerobic exercise, it can boost cardiovascular health. In a study published in February 2016 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, both moderate-intensity dancing (defined as any effort that gets you breathless or sweaty) and moderate-intensity walking were linked to a lower risk of death from heart disease, but dancing had a greater protective effect.
In addition, dancing is a weight-bearing activity, which the National Osteoporosis Foundation notes can help you maintain or build bone density. An earlier small study in older adults with osteoporosis found that dancing even helped reverse losses in bone density.
Learn More About the Ways Dancing Is Good for Your Health
All that jumping, twisting, and shaking burns calories, which may help you achieve the calorie deficit you need to lose weight if weight loss is your goal.
Harvard Medical School reports that you can burn an estimated 90 to 252 calories in 30 minutes of dancing. The exact number varies depending on the style of dance and your body weight. A slow waltz or foxtrot will net roughly 90 calories for a 125 pound person, whereas a faster ballet or twisting dance style will burn approximately 180 for the same person.
A study published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that healthy women burned an average of 369 calories during a 40-minute high-intensity Zumba class.
But while you may lose weight through consistent dance workouts and nutrition adjustments, it’s best to work with a certified personal trainer and registered dietitian who can help you fit dance workouts — and any other activities you love — into your overall wellness goals, MacDonald says.
As with any kind of workout, it’s key to start slow if you’re new to dance.
Dance workouts are easy to modify according to fitness level and ability. You can even dance in a chair if needed. Still, it’s important to get checked out by a healthcare provider if you have an underlying health condition like heart disease or high blood pressure, says Samantha Amway, an orthopedic clinical specialist on the sports medicine team at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Lewis Center, Ohio.
“If you’re just starting out, begin with smaller chunks and build consistency so it becomes part of your day,” Roup suggests. “Sometimes just 10 minutes a day is all we need to shift how we feel energetically.”
Look for shorter classes you can commit to, in person or online. Many gyms and fitness clubs offer virtual and in-person dance classes, and there are likely a variety of specialty dance studios in your area. You can also download a dance fitness app or search for dance workouts on platforms like YouTube.
If you haven’t exercised consistently, aim to do two to three 10- to 15-minute dance workouts per week, Roup suggests. Gradually lengthen your sessions or move up to more challenging classes as you gain strength and fitness.
It’s a good idea to check in with a healthcare provider before you start a dance class if you have an underlying health condition, particularly high blood pressure (hypertension) or heart-related issues, Amway says.
“Also, if you’ve had any musculoskeletal injuries in the past, I would recommend consulting with a physician or physical therapist for modifications during workouts,” she says.
Here are a few other things to know before you get started.
Learn More About How to Get Started With Dance Workouts
Once you feel more comfortable dancing, look for ways to increase the intensity.
Here are a few ideas.
Carbohydrates should be the primary focus before a dance training session. “They are the most efficient and preferred source of energy to fuel muscles during exercise, especially during the higher-intensity training that dancers engage in,” says Kelly Jones, RD, a certified specialist in sports dietetics and the owner of Student Athlete Nutrition in Philadelphia.
If you’re eating three or four hours before your dance session, aim for a high-carbohydrate meal that includes some fiber and moderate amounts of fat and protein. Try oatmeal made with milk and topped with fruit and nuts, or a peanut butter and banana sandwich with baby carrots and low-fat milk, Jones suggests.
If it’s been longer since your last meal, look for a high-carb snack you can eat 20 to 90 minutes before the workout that’s easy to digest. Jones suggests a piece of fruit, a small granola bar, a mini bagel, or a serving of pretzels or crackers.
Bring water with you when you work out and aim to take three to four gulps at least once every 15 to 20 minutes. If the workout is longer than 60 minutes, bring a sports drink to replenish carbohydrates, sodium, and fluid lost through sweat and intense exercise, Jones says.
After the workout, resupply with carbohydrates and protein. Great snack options include chocolate milk, a Greek yogurt parfait with granola and fruit, or an apple with pretzels and two to three cheese sticks. If you prefer a meal, try a bowl with rice, veggies, your favorite dressing or sauce, and a protein source like chicken or salmon, Jones suggests.
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