My dad was the freest man I ever knew, and good or bad, if he thought it, he said it or did it. I can remember that everything for him was always the “best.” He ate the “best” pie, watched the “best” sunset , and enjoyed the “best” day at the beach. I felt it was my job to challenge him. I often told him in a snarky tone, “Well, Dad, statistically speaking, it’s impossible for everything to be the best.” My father simply smiled in response. I imagine he was thinking something like, “Oh dear son. You just don’t get it, do you?” He was right, I didn’t.
He also loved to dance freely and would do it at any moment. We would be eating dinner at an upscale restaurant, and he would hear a song that he really liked; more often than not, he would stand up and just start dancing. I was so embarrassed but looking back, I not only cherish his freedom, but have done everything I can to imitate it as evidenced by the video below. I think it is also astonishing that my dad could have never imagined (or perhaps he could) that science would one day indicate that his dancing was the absolute best thing he could do to maintain his creative mind and extraordinary freedom.
So now I embarrass my kids as often as possible like this past Halloween. Here is what my daughter, Candice, posted on Facebook documenting my shenanigans…
“That time your Dad dressed up as Flash and flat footed at the local Baptist Church. (Note: no other adults were dressed up, we are not members)”
What Does the Research Say?
Research published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine reveals that free-style dance is the one activity that may be the most important to brain health.1 This study showed that dance is the single best activity to improve a person’s cognitive skills—whatever age they might be.
In fact this study compared free-style dance to other physical and mental activities.
- Reading reduced the risk of dementia by 35%.
- Other physical activities like bicycling and swimming, while helping with cardiovascular disease did not impact dementia.
- Doing crossword puzzles at least four days a week reduced risk by 47%.
- Golf had no effect.
However, free-style dancing frequently reduced the risk of dementia by 76%. That was the greatest risk reduction of any activity studied, mental or physical!
So how does this work, scientifically? In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I point out that our minds are a constant work in progress if we choose them to be.
Here is the key principle to maintaining a healthy brain…use it or lose it. You see, our brains constantly build nerve superhighways if we are doing activities that tell them to do so. This process is called brain plasticity. However, they won’t build the highways if they are not called upon to do so.
Neuroscientists believe that free-style dance tells your brain, particularly the critical regions (neocortex and hippocampus) necessary for higher level thinking, to build new nerve superhighways that keep your brain young. To date, free-style dancing appears to do this better than any physical or mental activity!
So, I absolutely love to dance, especially to the soul music of the 60s and 70s. I dance by myself when no one is watching every morning getting ready for my day, and I am the first one on the dance floor when any live music starts. As you can see by the video above, I even dance to bluegrass music in superhero costumes at church Halloween festivals!
Even without the research telling me so, I deeply sense how dance connects my mind, body, and spirit like few other activities. I also believe that I am able to drink of the fountain of youth and experience the freedom that my dad discovered decades earlier. So dance! Even if you have two left feet, dance anyway!
I love you all and hope you have a beautiful day!
1 New Eng J Med 348:2508