It’s no secret that staying physically active can keep us sharp and on our toes as we age, but with so many activities to choose from, which is best? We’ll give you a hint: A new study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, may give rise to an increase in sales of dancing shoes instead of sneakers.     

German researchers looked at dancing as a promising intervention in age-related balance disturbances and cognitive impairment since it requires the integration of sensory information from multiple channels (auditory, vestibular, visual, somatosensory) and the fine-grained motor control of the whole body.

"Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity," says Dr. Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of the study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany.

"In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance."

The 18-month study recruited 26 elderly volunteers with an average age of 68. Participants were assigned either a weekly 90-miinute course of learning dance routines or endurance training. The endurance program consisted of repetitive exercises, such as cycling on an ergometer or Nordic walking.

A baseline pre-test, and post-tests at six months and 18 months were given to all participants to measure the effects of the two training programs on cognition and balance.  

While both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus, only the dance group showed improved balance, which was evaluated using the Sensory Organization Test. Hippocampus volume was determined from magnetic resonance images    

The researchers believe the challenge of recalling the choreography of a new dance routine may be the reason for this difference.

“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres (Jazz, Square, Latin-American and Line Dance). Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor," said Rehfeld.

The researchers noted that balancing is an important everyday function, crucial for example for social mobility. Impaired balance often results in falls, which constitutes a major health risk factor with consequences both on morbidity (and even mortality) and health care costs. They also said that although the ability to balance has been also linked to the hippocampus and its connections, for example, to the vestibular system, they did not observe a correlation between hippocampus subfield volumes and improvements in balance.

Larger studies with more representative samples are required in the future. But in the meantime, brushing up on different dance moves can be a step in the right direction for healthy aging.