Physical exercise has an anti-aging effect on the hippocampus region of the brain — an area that controls memory, learning and balance. A new study, comparing different forms of exercise — dancing and endurance training — undertaken by elderly volunteers for 18 months, shows that both can have an anti-aging effect on the brain, but only dancing corresponded to a noticeable difference in behaviour.
This difference is attributed to the extra challenge of learning dancing routines.
As we grow older we suffer a decline in mental and physical fitness, which can be made worse by conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. But older people who routinely partake in physical exercise can reverse the signs of aging in the brain, and dancing has the most profound effect.
“Exercise has the beneficial effect of slowing down or even counteracting age-related decline in mental and physical capacity,” says Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, lead author of a study, based at the German center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, Magdeburg, Germany.
“In this study, we show that two different types of physical exercise (dancing and endurance training) both increase the area of the brain that declines with age. In comparison, it was only dancing that lead to noticeable behavioral changes in terms of improved balance.”
Elderly volunteers, with an average age of 68, were recruited to the study and assigned either an 18-month weekly course of learning dance routines, or endurance and flexibility training. Both groups showed an increase in the hippocampus region of the brain that can be prone to age-related decline and is affected by diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also plays a key role in memory and learning, as well as keeping one’s balance.
“We tried to provide our seniors in the dance group with constantly changing dance routines of different genres. Steps, arm-patterns, formations, speed and rhythms were changed every second week to keep them in a constant learning process. The most challenging aspect for them was to recall the routines under the pressure of time and without any cues from the instructor.”
Rehfeld and her colleagues are building on this research to trial new fitness programs that have the potential of maximizing anti-aging effects on the brain.
Physical activity is one of the lifestyle factors that can contribute to this, counteracting several risk factors and slowing down age-related decline and dancing is a powerful tool to set new challenges for body and mind, especially in older age.