Published in the Winter 2017 issue of the Weight Management Matters Newsletter
Written By: Yasi Ansari, MS, RD, CSSD
The performing arts have been around for centuries. Dance has been an integral part of many cultures and rituals. It involves human movement, whether that movement is fast, slow, an upper-body, lower-body or full body movement. It can be performed with or without music and even in the confinement of small spaces. I, like many others who have grown up dancing competitively, know that dance and performance provide a variety of health benefits. For example in one study, arts participation including dance was strongly associated with healthy eating, physical activity and positive mental well-being.1 This study also concluded that the arts and cultural activities are independently associated with health behaviors and mental well-being regardless of socioeconomic class 1. This form of exercise is beneficial for all groups of people and socio-economic classes who are looking for a fun and creative way to manage weight.
What kind of dance is right for you?
In my dietetics experience with patients and clients, I encourage dance as a weight management tool. I tell clients that dance comes in all shapes and sizes. There is a style that can fit everyone’s needs. Popular genres and styles include but are not limited to: samba, Zumba, belly dance, flamenco, bachata (cultural); ballet, jazz, tap (classical); salsa, tango, waltz (ballroom); tap, jazz, lyrical (classical); hip-hop, funk, and breakdancing (modern). Other dance-inspired aerobic and strength-focused activities include barre or synchronized swimming (which includes swimming, dance and gymnastics) classes. Individuals can take any of these classes through a studio, a gym or download a video. Individuals who may have injuries or are recovering from recent surgeries can work with instructors to alter movements that fit limitations set by medical professionals and still benefit from these various styles.
This activity can be an effective part of a weight management program. Though more research is needed on caloric expenditure in dancing, there is a wide range of calories that can be burned through dance depending on the type, frequency of classes, duration and intensity. After speaking with multiple dietitians who focus on fueling dancers, calories expended can range anywhere from 300 to 2400 depending on a variety of factors. For example in some classes individuals will be participating in rigorous activity for 60 and more minutes while some classes only 30 minutes of that time will include a rigorous activity. In preparation for performances, dancers may be rehearsing for hours. To really get a good grasp as to actual calories expended, additional research would be needed and geared towards different dance styles and intensities. That may be a challenge as every class is designed differently, involves different movements, and research would have to account for differences in body types, body composition, gender, height and weight. This is why it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly how many calories are burned. For now, one way to estimate calories is to use the metabolic equivalent of task (METS) compendium. Research suggests that dance uses a MET value of 3.0 to ~ 12.0 depending on the type of dance activity 2, 3. There are equations that use MET values and minutes of exercise to help estimate the number of calories burned per week. Another way to monitor calories burned during classes, would be to invest in a fitness or activity tracker, which may provide a more accurate reading of expended energy. Whenever working with clients, I like to shift the focus from calories expended and encourage clients to focus on the other health benefits of dance such as stress and weight management.
Dance and its role in managing stress, depression and weight
Dance is a form of self-expression. Life gets stressful with busy schedules, dropping kids off at school, deadlines and taking on multiple roles for your immediate surroundings. One research article focused on community college students suggests that high stress has been linked to weight gain when controlling for student characteristics and weight-related health behaviors such as meal skipping, eating out, frequent snacking, low physical activity, smoking and binge eating 4, 5. Although additional research is needed for its mechanism, more and more research suggests the correlation of stress and increased obesity risk 4, 5. As research suggests stress induced cortisol secretion is one reason for increased central body fat 6. I encourage clients to express through dance as the music will also help generate positive feelings and in return decrease hormones elevated in response to stress.
Dance can help ease symptoms of stress for those undergoing chronic disease therapy as well. A short-term dance movement therapy (DMT) program counteracted the expected worsening of stress and pain in women undergoing radiotherapy for breast cancer treatment 7. In addition, a study with Swiss university students found that frequent participation in ball sports and dancing when comparing the effects of aerobic exercise in ball sports, weight-lifting and dance were associated with decreased depressive symptoms among students with elevated perceived stress 8. Other forms of dance such as tango have also been compared to mindful meditation practices in people with anxiety, depression and psychosocial stress and found that dance is just as effective as mindfulness practices 9. Dance is an effective tool to help manage symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety. This research suggests that partaking in this activity may help reduce behaviors that result from conditions of depression, stress and anxiety such as increased food consumption while keeping hormones stable and preventing unwanted weight gain.
Older Adults and Dance
Our youth are not the only group that benefit from dance therapy. Dance intervention has also helped improve older adults’ health by increasing flexibility, cardiovascular health and brain function 10. Studies show that dance interventions may address older adult barriers to being physically active, especially for those with pre-existing medical conditions and physical limitations 10. Additional research is needed on dance and improvements in body composition; however, studies suggest that dance can help maintain body composition in older adults 10. Complementing the right nutrition therapy in this population may help address weight loss goals, prevent weight gain and maintain lean muscle mass. In addition, many studies in the elderly have shown that improving aerobic capacity through activities such as dance can even prevent the decline of cognitive performance 11. Whether it is a gym class or a studio class, the brain also gets its exercise by memorizing routines and a variety of dance moves. This further reinforces that dance plays an important role in overall health and longevity in addition to meeting body composition goals in the older adult population.
Dance and Health Outcomes
While I always encourage clients to make time to actually leave their homes to take a dance class, one can still achieve all of the benefits of dance right in their own living room. Research, although limited, links exergames such as “Dance Dance Revolution” to weight loss, physical and mental fitness, and improved health 9. This is one example of an enjoyable dance activity that increases energy expenditure, motivation, promotes social interaction and enhances cognitive performance 12. With additional research on exergames, we may find more dance-themed activities that one can enjoy in the comfort of their own home. These are also activities that can help prevent childhood obesity by encouraging active rather than sedentary lifestyles in front of a television.
Motivation plays a huge role in how active one chooses to be, and lack of motivation can be a major barrier to exercise, especially among those with busy schedules and or who may feel self-conscious about exercising in public or going to a gym. Zumba is one aerobic activity involving dance that increases the motivation to exercise 13. I have found this style to have a lot of popularity, especially among my older adult clients. In one dance intervention study, participants who took part in three 60-minute Zumba classes per week for 16 weeks saw improvements in VO2max, muscular endurance, flexibility and motivation to exercise 13. Participants who were previously considered sedentary also found reductions in body weight, BMI and percent of body fat, suggesting that Zumba aerobic activity participation helps promote weight loss 13.
While the role of dance in weight management is promising, additional high quality random control trials are needed to better understand caloric expenditure in the variety of dance intensities, as well as the use of dance in management of chronic disease, mental well-being and overall health 1,14. Future investigations are also needed to determine the best type, required time, and number of dance sessions needed per week to optimize the health benefits and therapeutic effects of dance 15.
Dietitians who work to help clients manage weight through dance and those who work specifically with dancers can benefit from resources that help better understand how to individualize nutrition therapy. When working with clients who want to use dance as a way to lose weight, I urge dietitians to first understand why dance is being used as therapy (to expend calories, to reduce stress, increase physical fitness, cross-training or to have an artistic outlet) and to then come up with an effective nutrition program to best meet the client’s health goals. Additionally, nutrition programs should be tailored to the specific dance styles, levels, and intensities in which a client is practicing. I encourage dietitians to recommend dance as a form of exercise just as they would any other aerobic activity. There is an abundance of evidence, both anecdotal and research-based, that supports the various health benefits of dance in people of all ages. It is uplifting, increases motivation while keeping the body and mind healthy.
Renton A, Phillips G, Daykin N, et al. Think of your art-eries: arts participation, behavioural cardiovascular risk factors and mental well-being in deprived communities in London. Public Health. 2012;126:S57-S64.
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Di Blasio A, DeSanctis M, Gallina S, et al. Are physiological characteristics of caribbean dance useful for health? J sports Med Phys Fitness. 2009;49(1):30-34.
Pelletier JE, Lytle LA, Laska, MN. Stress, health risk behaviors, and weight status among community college students. Health Educ Behav. 2015;1-6.
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Epel ES, McEwen B, Seeman T, et al. Stress and body shape: stress-induced cortisol secretion is consistently greater among women with central fat. Psychosom Med. 2000;62(5):623-32. Abstract.
Ho RT, Fong TC, Cheung IC, et al. Effects of a short-term dance movement therapy program on symptoms and stress in patients with breast cancer undergoing radiotherapy: a randomized, controlled, single-blind trial. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2016;51(5):824-831.
Gerber M, Brand S, Elliot C, et al. Aerobic exercise, ball sports, dancing, and weight lifting as moderators of the relationship between stress and depressive symptoms: an exploratory cross-sectional study with swiss university students. Percept Mot Skills. 2014;119(3):679-697. Abstract.
Pinniger R, Brown RF, Thorsteinsson EB, et al. Argentine tango dance compared to mindfulness meditation and a waiting-list control: a randomised trial for treating depression. Complement Ther Med. 2012;20:377-384.
Hwang PW, Braun KL. The effectiveness of dance interventions to improve older adults’ health: a systematic literature review. Altern Ther Health Med. 2015;21(5):64-70.
Kattenstroth J-C, Kalisch T, Kolankowska I, et al. Balance, sensorimotor, and cognitive performance in long-year expert senior ballroom dancers. J Aging Res. 2011;1-10.
Staiano A, Calvert S. Exergames for physical education courses: physical, social, and cognitive benefits. Child Dev Perspect. 2011;5(2):93-98. Abstract.
Krishnan S, Tokar T, Boylan MM, et al. Zumba dance improves health in overweight/obese or type 2 Diabetic women. Am J Health Behav. 2015;39(1):109-120.
Strassel JK, Cherkin DC, Steuten L, et al. A systematic review of the evidence for the effectiveness of dance therapy. Altern Ther. Health Med. 2011;17(3):50-59
Rocha Conceicao LS, Gomes Neto M, Do Amaral MA, et al. Effect of dance therapy on blood pressure and exercise capacity of individuals with hypertension: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Cardiol. 2016;220:553-557.