Fitness Basics: Dance Your Way to Fitness

Whether it's techno, salsa, ballroom, or Jazzercise, dance is great exercise for everyone

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on February 24, 2006
From the WebMD Archives

Salsa, techno, swing, hip-hop, ballroom dancing: Whatever you love, it's all good. Good exercise, that is. Just about any dance style can rev your heart rate, burn calories, and tone muscles.

"Any form of dancing is good for your heart, improves balance and joint stability, helps prevent osteoporosis, burns calories ... I'm all for it," Laurence Sperling, MD, medical director of preventive cardiology at the Emory Clinic in Atlanta, tells WebMD.

The beauty is that, for many folks, dancing just doesn't feel like exercise. It's all about the joy of movement.

One senior-age lady, trapped indoors during Chicago winters, puts on her favorite CDs, then dances around her house for a good hour at a time. In Tennessee, Ron and Betty Buchanan have stayed in great shape for decades thanks to square dancing.

Rebecca Miller of Lovejoy, Ga., has been a salsa dancer for years and sometimes teaches classes. Salsa may be smooth and sexy, but it's also a serious workout. "You're sweating by the end of the night," she tells WebMD.

Then, there's Jazzercise -- still going strong since 1969, when Judi Sheppard Missett pioneered a blend of jazz dance and exercise. Back then, there weren't many fitness options for women, she tells WebMD.

"I was teaching a jazz dance class, but it was too hard for many of the women," she says. "They were just there to get in shape! I decided to make it simpler, more fun, more exciting for them."

And thus Jazzercise was born, in her dance studio in Chicago.

Today, Jazzercise is not just jazz dancing. It's a high-intensity mix of jazz plus salsa, tango, hip-hop and kickboxing -- along with low-impact Pilates, ballet, and yoga. Hand weights and exercise bands, for strength work, are part of the mix.

Studios are all over the country, even worldwide, Missett says. The classes are still 99% female, but guys are welcome in a few studios. The atmosphere is casual, chatty, girl-friendly. You'll find 30-somethings, seniors, and every age in between. Dress is nothing special -- T-shirts, sweats, stretchy Lycra, cropped tights.

Routines are carefully structured to gradually increase, then decrease, heart rate. The last 15-20 minutes of each class is devoted to strength building and toning, Missett explains.

Top music from various genres is matched to the routines. "Music is a great catalyst for movement," says Missett, who choreographs the routines (they're also reviewed by an exercise physiologist). The music and routines change often, to keep things fresh and keep muscles challenged.

This year, Jazzercise won a thumbs-up from Consumer Reports. It's the only exercise program rated by the magazine that satisfied all its criteria for a well-rounded workout.

During a 30-minute Jazzercise workout, a 200-pound person can burn 273 calories, according to Consumer Reports. Not only that, but Jazzercises provides cardiovascular benefits along with a resistance workout that works both the upper and lower body. It's also weight-bearing exercise (the kind that helps protect against bone loss).

"Jazzercise is still around because it's so good," says Gerald Endress, MS, a clinical exercise physiologist and director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

"Jazzercise is made to be fun, but to also improve aerobic capacity, strength, and endurance. And if you like that kind of jazzy dancing, it's for you. It says a lot that Jazzercise has been around so long."

Every(wo)man's Fitness Program

"Dancing is moving ... anybody can dance," says Josie Gardner, a former ballet dancer who's now an exercise physiologist and spokeswoman for the American Council on Exercise. "You can dance sitting in chair, dance with your friends. It doesn't matter whether you do five or 10 minutes at a time or more. Dancing makes people feel good, and it's fun."

Gardner lives in Massachusetts, where dance clubs are tradition.

"You can find 500 couples in there ballroom dancing. You can work up a good sweat if you're doing it all night," she says.

What kid doesn't like to dance? Step into any arcade: Kids are all over the "reactive dance pads" -- soft floor pads that look something like the old Twister game.

You can buy them for home use, too. Plug the pad into your computer and it lights up, guiding where your feet should go.

"Dance pads are a great workout," Gardner says. "Kids kind of dominate them now, but anyone can do it."

Not Many Fat Dancers

If you dance 60 minutes a day, you could be 10-12 pounds lighter in a year, Gardner tells WebMD.

"So many people are dissuaded from workout programs. But they can dance -- even at home. Get up during a commercial and dance around. Do 10 minutes of dancing every morning and evening."

"You don't see too many overweight square dancers or ballroom dancers," Endress tells WebMD. "You work up a sweat! I took it in college, so I can vouch for that. Swing dancing and jitterbug -- those are fun dances, a good workout, and most people learn them quickly."

Dancing is considered a moderate-intensity exercise, he says.

"You're moving your body up to an hour at a time. Anyone doing that will burn 200, 300 calories. It's endurance that's doing the calorie burn."

Swing dancing "will get your heart rate up pretty high," Endress adds. "Rock and techno dancing are low-impact aerobics. But the intensity depends on how vigorous you want to be."

If your club dancing is intense -- say, with foot-stomping plus crazy-fast arms -- you could really get a good workout.

"The goal is to exercise so that you increase your heart rate over 30 minutes to where you can just barely talk comfortably," says Sperling.

One word of advice: even if you love dancing, it's best to mix things up a bit, Sperling adds. "Combine a bunch of [activities] like dancing, walking, jogging, swimming, playing tennis," he says. "They're all very beneficial."

Originally published Mar. 06, 2005.
Medically updated Feb. 16, 2006.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Consumer Reports, January 2005. Laurence Sperling, MD, medical director of preventive cardiology, Emory Clinic, Atlanta. Rebecca Miller, Lovejoy, Ga. Judi Sheppard Missett, founder and CEO, Jazzercise, Chicago. Gerald Endress, MS, clinical exercise physiologist and director, Duke Diet and Fitness Center, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, N.C. Josie Gardner, exercise physiologist; spokesperson, American Council on Exercise, Massachusetts.

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