Square Dancing for Fitness and Fun Improves Mental Acuity
David F. Colvard, M.D.
Sometimes square dancing begins with a woman dragging her male partner to a square dance the first time, but then he races her to the next dance. Why is that? Well, square dancing is just plain FUN and fortunately, for us dance-challenged men, a caller tells us exactly what to do. It does require that you know your right from your left (the “other right”), but that is why men wear wrist watches. It is sort of like marching to lively music without a drill sergeant berating you when you make a mistake. Instead, everybody in the square just laughs and keeps on dancing. How much easier can it get?
Square dancing is not only fun, but can improve your cardiovascular fitness (heart) and muscle strength and stamina. You dance to live or recorded popular music in 20 to 30 inch steps at a speed of 100 to 140 beats per minute for three to four minutes per dance. My wife and I are Carolina Hurricanes fans and that is almost twice as long as a line shift, but square dancing is not as strenuous or dangerous as NHL hockey. You rest for a short while between dances to recover and then dance again and again over the next hour or two or three. A woman in our square dance club wears a pedometer and says it usually records three to four miles in an evening. A Mayo Clinic Health Letter (January 1994) reported one study that “found that each person covered nearly five miles in a single evening”.
Square dancing typically burns up about 280 calories per hour in a 150 pound person. More energetic dancers may burn up to 400 calories in half an hour of sustained dancing. But, the problem some of us have is that we can eat refreshments much faster than we can dance.
Square dancing is a low impact activity, except when you stomp your feet and clap your hands to the lively upbeat music. It involves weight bearing, side-to-side movements, and numerous turning and pivoting movements which can improve bone density and balance. I was still rehabbing from a broken leg from a boating accident when my wife and I started square dancing. It was a whole lot more fun and less expensive than the physical therapy. In fact, there are dancers in our club who have had hip replacements or knee replacements and you would never notice a difference.
Square dancing offers more than just physical fitness benefits because it “gives you an opportunity to develop strong social ties which contribute to self-esteem and a positive outlook” according to another Mayo Clinic Health Letter. A lot of our club members spend as much time socializing with friends as dancing. After all, square dancing is friendship set to music.
Square dancing requires your full attention to the caller and split-second rapid-fire decision making (as opposed to rote memory) which increases your cognitive reserve. A recent 21 year prospective long study from Albert Einstein College of Medicine (1) suggested that dancing at least twice per week was the only physical leisure activity that offered some protection against dementia. Golf, bicycling, and swimming and other physical activities did not.
Square dancing makes it impossible to think about the day’s worries, stresses and frustrations. As a psychiatrist, I can assure you that is something from which we can all benefit.
Dr. Colvard was in the private practice of psychiatry for over 30 years and is the vice-president of the Star Twirlers Square Dance Club in Raleigh, NC.
This article is excerpted from the May 2013 issue of BOOM Magazine and is copyrighted.
(1) Joe Verghese, M.D., Richard B. Lipton, M.D., Mindy J. Katz, M.P.H., Charles B. Hall, Ph.D., Carol A. Derby, Ph.D., Gail Kuslansky, Ph.D., Anne F. Ambrose, M.D., Martin Sliwinski, Ph.D., and Herman Buschke, M.D., Leisure Activities and the Risk of Dementia in the Elderly. N Engl J Med 2003; 348:2508-2516 June 19, 2003