Turn to Dance
for Emotional and Physical Well-Being
As we transition from our seemingly indestructible selves in our youth to the potential vulnerability as mortals on this Earth, we look for ways to prevent illness and maintain our well-being. Our physicians advise us to eat well, exercise and get enough sleep, but research has shown there is more that can be done to achieve emotional wellness. Participating in the arts can improve both our physical and emotional health. Physicians in the UK are even being encouraged to write prescriptions for arts participation for their patients.
Well-being has been described in many ways, starting with Aristotle, including autonomy; environmental mastery; positive relationships with others; purpose in life; realization of potential; and self-acceptance. A contemporary definition of well-being is a central setpoint between the psychological, social and physical resources we must have in order to meet psychological, social and or physical challenges. Well-being is advantageous as we age, because it confers healthy minds and bodies and the ability to withstand the many stresses that life brings.
The goal of lifelong wellness encompasses taking care of our emotional and physical selves along the whole course of our lives. It is important to understand that how we age reflects the degree and quality of our self-care. And we are aging. Getting to 100 can be a very good thing, but there are pitfalls.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that by the year 2025, Americans aged 65 and older will number nearly 89 million people, or more than double the number of older adults than there were in 2010. The CDC also advises that the treatable diseases will diminish in number as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis take their place. These chronic diseases increasingly affect a person’s ability to take care of themselves independently or have a social life. The more sedentary one’s lifestyle, the higher the risk of chronic disease.
There is another cost to getting older, and it is isolation. The UK Department of Health publication Ageing Well reports, “Loneliness is associated with increased mortality over a six-year period. The influence of social relationships (or the lack of them) on the risk of death is comparable to other established mortality factors such as smoking or alcohol consumption, and actually exceed the influence of physical activity and obesity.”
The arts are becoming a way to get people out with each other and feeling a sense of purpose and mastery. People often let their artistic interests go as they start a job or a family. Recapturing the passion of an art that was let go or trying our hand at something new can be invigorating. People are surprised that their life experience brings a richer quality to their art. There is not as much need to prove ourselves, so the act of creating can often be a reward in itself. Attending a class with people with similar interests makes it easier to build new social relationships.
Dance is an especially potent art form for wellness. There is a large and growing body of research showing that participating in dance at any age, and especially as we grow older, improves many aspects of health and well-being. Any kind of dance activity can challenge us both physically and cognitively. We learn new and complex step sequences in time to music, and sometimes must remember them. It improves balance and decreases the risk of falling (a major cause of morbidity and mortality). It improves flexibility and strength. Dance has been shown to decrease the rate of cognitive decline. Attending two, one-hour dance classes a week will get us close to the 150 minutes of weekly exercise that the American College of Sports Medicine and American Heart Association recommend for strength and cardiovascular health. This activity works to prevent or mitigate chronic health diseases.
Most importantly, no matter what their age, participants in dance classes are having fun. Many do not know each other when they join the classes. After a while, they know each other’s names and look forward to seeing each other. The optimal classes are warm, welcoming and non-judgmental. There are some dance teachers with special training for elder beginners, including those with injuries and chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Some students had dance experience as children, and some had never taken a dance class. Their confidence grows as they master new steps. Besides Ballet, other classes include Modern Dance, Tap, Jazz, Hip-Hop and more.
Emotional and mental well-being are supported by physical well-being. Participating in the arts provides many of the elements necessary to reach the goal of lifelong wellness. Dance is but one of many art forms, and if it is not the art form of choice, we can find one that moves us. Sing in a choir, take a ceramics class, act, try circus arts. Take that first step to a world of joy and friendship. The well-being will follow.
Lynne Belsky, M.D., is a concierge physician and the owner of Living Well MD, in Highland Park. She is a former professional dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, and a ballet instructor to people ages 55 and above at the CBG Institute for Dance and Health, which is based at the North Shore School of Dance, 505 Laurel Ave., in Highland Park. For more information, call 847-432-2060, email [email protected] or visit CBGInstitute.org.