Lee Ann Womack had a giant hit in 2000 with a song called “I hope you dance” written by Mark Sanders and Tia Sellers. Lee Ann, Mark and Tia were on to something. There is ample research supporting the role exercise has in overall health. Further, there is substantial additional research that informs us that we can grow a bigger brain by learning new activities that involve concentration and fine motor skills, such as learning to play the guitar or woodcarving.
Professor Angieszka Burzynska and a team from the University of Illinois in Urbana performed a study on older adults to see if dancing had any effect on brain health. The test group, which consisted of older adults, was split into three groups. One group maintained their current activities; most of them were sedentary. The second group performed light stretching exercises, and the third group began to take dance lessons and dance. The good news is that the dancers showed real, measurable improvement in the area of the brain called the fornix. The fornix is part of the limbic system. It is a bunch of nerve fibers that carry outbound signals from the hippocampus. It is involved in memory.
Those results were somewhat surprising; experts thought that the fornix was mainly involved in memory, not in the speed at which we react or think. But the results were clear; dancers processed information faster.
There are additional benefits. Prior research shows that humans are indeed social, and health and longevity is favorably affected by social activities, friendships and the like. Living alone and keeping to oneself is not a recipe for brain health or living to a ripe old age.
Dance and win a superfecta: aerobic exercise, a learning challenge requiring motor skills and concentration, growth in the fornix, and social interaction.
As Ms. Womack sang, “If when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance”.