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'If You Can Walk, You Can Square Dance'

McKinley knows what he's talking about. Square dancing contributes to a more healthy and independent lifestyle, says Lewis Maharam, MD, a sports medicine specialist in New York City and president of the Greater New York Regional Chapter of the American College of Sports Medicine.

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"Anything that keeps you active will keep you healthier and feeling younger. In most cases if you can walk, you can square dance, but it's good advice to talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise regimen," says Maharam, also medical director of the Suzuki Rock 'n' Roll Marathon® in San Diego, the Country Music Marathon™, and the New York City Marathon.

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"Any weight-bearing exercise, including square dancing, is a major benefit as one ages," he says. Weight-bearing exercise improves bone health and thus may help stave off the brittle-bone disease osteoporosis.

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"Square dancing also helps you with the feeling of where you are in space and with coordination, and this may reduce falls and chances for fractures," says Maharam. "Regular square dancing may boost endurance, and being able to tolerate longer bouts of moving faster may result in improved cardiac function as the heart, a muscle, can become more efficient if trained. Square dancing can be considered a type of cross training, which helps to offset the muscle loss and strength loss typically associated with normal aging."

A Social Form of Exercise

The physical benefits of square dancing are impressive, to be sure, but don't discount the social payoff, says Jerry Reed of Coca, Fla.

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"The primary benefit [of square dancing] is the social interaction between people," says Reed, executive director of CALLERLAB, the international association of square-dance callers, with 2,000 members worldwide.

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"Most of the activities that people do these days are individual, such as golfing, tennis, and bowling," he says. "Square dancing is kind of unique in that it involves touching hands -- we turn, we swing, and that seems to bring us closer together."

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And the touching in itself can be beneficial to health, according to studies conducted at the Touch Research Institute in Miami, which showed that regular touching can reduce stress and depression and enhance immune system function.

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