It’s no secret that exercise stalls cognitive decline — and not just the physical kind of exercise either. Working out your mind is equally important in the fight against dementia. Put the two together, and you’ve got a bulletproof recipe for an ageless brain.
Of course, knowing this and doing it are two different things. The problem is, we’ve been hardwired to think of any form of exercise as tantamount to torture.
And let’s be honest. If you’re under the impression that merging physical and mental activity means doing calculus on a treadmill, I can’t really blame you for lacking enthusiasm to work out. But I can assure you, the reality isn’t nearly as terrible as it sounds.
In fact, a new study shows that the most effective exercise for reversing cognitive decline isn’t something most people think of as exercise at all…
A team of German scientists recently compared the cognitive benefits of an 18-month dance training program to a more traditional exercise program. Volunteers were healthy seniors between 63 and 80 years old.
Evaluation zeroed in on brain size — specifically, the volume of the hippocampus. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s negatively impact this part of your brain. But even normal aging can trigger hippocampal changes, resulting in cognitive deficits like memory loss, slower learning abilities, and reduced spatial awareness.
Most notably, though, the hippocampus is a hotbed of neuroplasticity — that’s the technical term for your brain’s ability to form new neural connections throughout your life.
As it turns out, both types of exercise increased hippocampal volume. But interestingly, the dancers showed extra improvements in neuroplasticity. And the dancers were also the only group to see significant balance improvements. (A pretty major advantage when you consider that falls can prove deadly as you age.)
It may seem surprising that the researchers found such a remarkable difference. But it makes sense when you think about it. An activity like dancing requires sensory input from multiple parts of your brain, and it engages your whole body in the process. (I would argue that Soul Cycle does too, but I wasn’t the author of the study so I have to defer to them for once.)
In any form of exercise, switching things up is always going to yield better benefits. And dancing involves constantly changing choreography (which you have to memorize), moves that challenge your balance, and multiple different patterns of movements.
This essentially puts your mind and body in a constant state of “learning” — which might explain why dancing fosters neuroplasticity better than traditional repetitive training activities. (Not to mention that it’s typically more social than a solo workout — and that plays a huge role in stalling cognitive decline, too.)
This isn’t to say that you should ditch your gym membership. The bottom line is that exercise — whatever form it takes — is just plain good for you, and your brain. But if you’ve ever considered signing up for a ballroom class, this might be your best reason yet to put on your dancing shoes and take the plunge.