New ballroom dancers may feel muscles they didn't know they had. That often happens with a new activity, says Ken Richards, spokesman for USA Dance, the national governing body of DanceSport -- the competitive version of ballroom dancing.
Ballroom dancing often means moving backward, especially for women, says Richards, a professional ballroom dancing veteran.
"If you're dancing the foxtrot, you're taking long, sweeping steps backwards. That's very different than walking forward on a treadmill or taking a jog around the neighborhood," he says.
Ballroom dancing works the backs of the thighs and buttock muscles differently from many other types of exercise, says Richards.
The legs and arms often do the flashy dance moves. But they're sunk without a strong body core.
The "core" muscles -- the abs and back -- are also used in Pilates, says Janice Byer. A lifelong dancer, Byer is group exercise director of The Courthouse Athletic Club in Oakland, Calif. Byer and her husband (whom she met through dancing) are avid swing dancers.
Dance can challenge your mind as well as your muscles.
At least one observational study has shown sharper minds with ballroom dancing.
The study appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine two years ago. Joe Verghese, MD, and colleagues studied 469 people who were at least 75 years old.
At the study's start, they answered surveys about mental and physical activities, like doing crossword puzzles or dancing. Back then, none had dementia.
Five years later, 124 had dementia. Frequent dancers had a reduced risk of dementia compared with those who rarely or never danced.
Of 11 physical activities considered, only dancing was tied to a lower dementia risk, Verghese tells WebMD.
Most dancers did ballroom dancing, says Verghese. He's an assistant neurology professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
The Dancing Brain
How might ballroom dancing help the brain? Verghese outlines three possibilities:
- Increased blood flow to the brain from the physical exercise
- Less stress, depression, and loneliness from dancing's social aspect
- Mental challenges (memorizing steps, working with your partner)
"Dance, in many ways, is a complex activity. It's not just purely physical," says Verghese.