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Five Steps to a Great Workout

Add some zest to your workout to boost your mood and your health


A record 400 participants in this Australian Zumba class

Gotta dance? Wanna dance? Shall we Dance? These song titles have inspired would-be movers and shakers for decades. As it turns out, answering "yes" to these questions can definitely help you get more out of your social life, but can also help your body and your mind. Every system of the body benefits from a good workout, including your brain. Unfortunately, many people are pretty exercise-averse and regard their workout as a tedious chore. If you're one of those people (and face it- who isn't at one time or another?), adding dance to your exercise routine will help motivate you to "move it, move it," to quote another great song.

The benefits of dance therapy as a psychotherapeutic intervention are well-established.  The American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA), founded in 1966, is a professional organization dedicated to the profession of dance and movement therapy.  Dance/movement therapy uses movement to "further the emotional, cognitive, physical and social integration of the individual," as stated on the ADTA website. Through movement, dance therapy can help individuals with a wide range of psychological disorders achieve greater self-expression.

Dance therapy's benefits through movement differ from the type of physiological benefits individuals can achieve through aerobic dance interventions.  There are decades of well-controlled studies providing incontrovertible evidence for aerobic activity's effectiveness in preventing and remediating physical debilitation in later adulthood. Aerobic activity can also benefit mental health, as shown by tests of its value as an alternative approach to medication in treating depression (Whitbourne & Whitbourne, 2011; Whitbourne & Halgin, in press).

Aerobic dance therapy is the newest form of aerobic exercise treatment to receive scientific scrutiny as a health-promoting intervention. Trademark programs such as "Jazzercise" and "Bodystep" have, for years, been providing instructors with professionally choreographed sets of moves that are safe, effective and- most importantly- fun. The "fun" element of aerobic dance is key to getting busy people who hate exercise into a gym.  The music is contemporary, upbeat, and motivating-- designed to get the heart rate high enough to allow participants to enter their training zone in which they are optimally burning fat.  Adding to these benefits, at about 20 minutes in the typical one-hour session, the body's endorphins will "kick in," and participants will experience a burst of positive mood and energy that carries them through the rest of the hour if not the day.  Although instructors may model high-stepping aerobics that are too much for participants with physical limitations, they typically also show alternative moves that involve much less strain on joints. If the mind is willing, most bodies will be able to take advantage of the benefits that aerobic dance exercise can provide.

The latest aerobic dance phenomenon, Zumba, combines Latin, Caribbean-style, and even country Western music into a high-energy but "doable" one-hour workout. There's very little that participants have to bring into the session other than their gym gear.  Unlike step or even low- or high-impact aerobics, Zumba requires practically no athletic ability or physical coordination.  Of course, it's great if you can swivel your hips to the beat, but even if you do nothing but move your feet and wave your arms, Zumba will still give you a fantastic workout. The music alone is enough to release your inner inhibitions, ensuring that you will enjoy some of dance therapy's benefits of self-expression. Zumba variants, such as Zumba Gold, are even specifically tailored to the fitness levels of older adults (check out Grandma Shellie, the "Zumba Gold Queen.)"

Research on aerobic dance exercise is beginning to validate the anecdotal claims of participants that their regular participation in this type of workout benefits their mental and physical health.  In one study published in 2009, a team at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, School of Nursing headed by Patricia Alpert found that 15 weeks of jazz dance therapy were sufficient to improve balance coordination in older women (mean age of 68). However, this pilot study did not demonstrate beneficial effects on mood or cognitive performance.  It is possible that the 15 weeks weren't sufficient to produce these specific effects, as I'll show shortly. Alpert (2011) later wrote more extensively about the benefits of music and dance more generally. People can burn as many (or more) calories through social dancing than they can in the gym because they'll enjoy the activity more and will therefore spend more time than they would if they were "exercising."

Hungarian researcher Ágnes Tihanyi Hős conducted a longer-term study of aerobic dance's impact on mood and cognition in older adults. The 53 middle-aged women who served as participants in this study were randomly assigned to control and experimental groups. The experimental group participated for an entire year in an aerobic dance program consisting of one-hour low impact exercises with choreography that brought their heart rate up to the aerobic training level (55-75% maximum heart rate). At the end of the year, the experimental group showed improved self-esteem and bodily self-image, as well as improvements in other self-image scales.  Their improved self-esteem was directly correlated with their improved bodily self-image.  Hős concluded that: "It seems that aerobic dance is one of the best physical activity tools which can increase self-confidence and satisfaction of middle-aged women in general and it may counterbalance the negative effect of ageing" (p. 148).

The Hős study didn't examine effects on cognition. However, as I discussed in an earlier blog posting, even moderate physical activity such as walking can have benefits that translate into improvements in memory and the brain. It's only a matter of time before cognitive researchers tackle the Zumba question.

It would be wonderful indeed if the antidote to many of aging's effects could be found in an activity that is fun, engaging, and relatively easy to do.  Aerobic dance is a great candidate for an anti-aging therapy. It's less expensive than medication and more enjoyable than simple caloric restriction as a way to control body fat.

To sum up, here are five pointers to help you take advantage of aerobic dance's benefits:

1. Find out if your local gym or community center offers Zumba or other aerobic dance programs. As Zumba becomes more popular, you'll find that more facilities make it available. If yours doesn't, find out what it would take to offer this program.

2. Make sure you are taking classes from trained instructors. People who teach aerobic dance need to be certified and trained in CPR. To be sure you're getting a safe and effective workout, check out the instructor's credentials.

3. Get a good pair of sneakers. Don't even think about doing Zumba, step, or any kind of aerobic activity barefoot, in flip-flops, or even in running shoes. The sneakers must protect your feet for the lateral motion involved in most aerobic dances.

4. Don't be self-conscious. Are you a terrible dancer? Do people compare you to Elaine from Seinfeld? Who cares!! No one is watching you because everyone else in the class is too busy thinking about how they are looking. If you still want to be as unobtrusive as possible, stand back in the corner in the back row and you'll be safe.

5. Take it slow at first. All certified instructors must demonstrate different levels of activity for the exercises they are teaching. The more fit and experienced participants will most likely choose the high-intensity option. You don't have to; in fact, you shouldn't until you're ready (if at all). Get the foot work under control and once you feel a little more confident, you can progress from there. You may never become a salsa sensation, but again, who cares? Just have fun, sweat, and you'll be sure to give your body a good workout.

In the words of the inimitable David Bowie: "Let's Dance!"

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012


Alpert, P. T. (2011). The health benefits of dance. Home Health Care Management & Practice23(2), 155-157. doi:10.1177/1084822310384689

Alpert, P. T., Miller, S. K., Wallmann, H., Havey, R., Cross, C., Chevalia, T., & ... Kodandapari, K. (2009). The effect of modified jazz dance on balance, cognition, and mood in older adults. Journal Of The American Academy Of Nurse Practitioners21(2), 108-115. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2008.00392.x

Hős, Á. (2005). The effects of guided systematic aerobic dance programme on the self-esteem of adults. Kinesiology37(2), 141-150.

Whitbourne, S.K. & Halgin, R.P. (in press). Abnormal psychology: Clinical perspectives (7th Ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Whitbourne, S.K. & Whitbourne, S.B. (2011). Adult development and aging: Biopsychosocial perspectives (4th ed.). Hoboken NJ: Wiley.