Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

Should Grandma and Grandpa Dance to Rihanna?

Posture and balance can be trained in older adults by contemporary dance.

In his classic song and album from 1983, David Bowie said “Let’s Dance”. In the lyrics to that massive hit we find the words “Let's dance for fear your grace should fall”. But what if some graceful dancing could actually help reduce the chance of falling in older adults? Or, if not reduce falling, at least help improve posture and balance that could yield the same effect?

This was the exact question that Olivier Coubard and colleagues from the Neurophysiology Laboratory in the CNS Institute in Paris (along with collaborators from Japan and Bolivia where the work was actually done) sought to answer. They recently published a paper in Frontiers in Aging Research called “One month of contemporary dance modulates fractal posture in aging.”

The researchers enrolled 38 adults who ranged in age from 54-89 years. They examined the postural control of each participant using standard measures. Basically this included observing how much “sway” they had while standing. Normally when we stand upright our bodies move around a bit inside the area between and including our feet—our base of support. The amount of sway of the posture within the base of support is a measure of how stable we are while standing. We are less stable and sure of our posture when our eyes are closed and in fact this measure is often used as a test of stability.

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After making these measures of posture the researchers randomly assigned the participants to two groups: a contemporary dance group and a no-dance group. The dance group performed a combination of dance to music and—a key part of this study intervention—improvised, exploratory and interpretive dancing. Each session was 90 minutes and up to 25% of this time included music. This training was conducted 3 times each week for 4 weeks. At the end of the one month training period, postural measures with eyes open and closed were taken again for both groups.

They then used standard techniques and some detailed mathematical processing to estimate the “quality” of postural control in the two groups. Especially in the eyes closed condition contemporary dance training significantly improved balance control and led to “higher postural confidence”. It’s quite stunning how effective this intervention was, considering the short 4 week duration. This speaks to the power that practicing targeted, stimulating, and challenging motor skills can have.

There are many benefits of being active and I’ve blogged about lots of issues here, especially how motor skill training in martial arts can help with balance and fear of falling. It’s always difficult to parse out how much of the benefits of activity are from “fitness” changes and how much from “motor learning”. Lots of evidence suggests a mixture of both and studies like this one clearly highlight the motor coordination aspect.

So what’s the answer to the question posed in the title of this post—“Should Grandma and Grandpa dance to Rihanna?” I think the answer is also found in David Bowie’s lyrics—they should absolutely “put on their red shoes and dance the blues.” The bottom line is keep on moving and try to be creatively interpetive! We need to keep active and keep challenging ourselves as we age, all the while doing things that are fun and enjoyable.

Music, anyone? Keep calm and dance on.

© E. Paul Zehr (2014)

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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