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Is Dancing the Kale of Exercise?

“We broadly divided the activities into those that were cognitively stimulating, such as reading, and those that were physical, like riding a bicycle,” said Dr. Joe Verghese, lead author of the study and Chief of Geriatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. From his clinic at the Bronx-based Montefiore Einstein Center for the Aging Brain, he said in a phone interview that out of 11 different physical activities his team studied, social dance was the only one associated with less dementia risk. He speculated that dance functions like an involved intellectual activity because it’s complex. Unlike walking on a treadmill, dance demands sustained mental effort to master new steps and requires coordination with a partner and the music.

Dr. Verghese cautioned that this was an observational study, not a clinical trial. “It doesn’t prove cause and effect. We can’t say that the dancing prevented the dementia. We can only say that it was associated with reduced risk of developing dementia.”

Deborah Riley, a professional modern dancer and instructor, has seen firsthand how crucial a frequent dance program can be for seniors to fight frailty and memory loss. “The old adage ‘move it or lose it’ is pretty much true,” Ms. Riley said. “If you don’t move your feet and your legs, you will lose your ability to do that.” For 15 years, Ms. Riley has taught dance to adults 50 years and older. She currently teaches in a program called Arts for the Aging and at Georgetown University Hospital. She said that music and movement help older people by triggering positive memories, sometimes transforming withdrawn seniors into talkative, engaged individuals.

It’s worth noting that the mental and physical benefits of dancing aren’t just for the young at heart. “Dancing increases cognitive acuity at all ages. It integrates several brain functions at once — kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional — further increasing your neural connectivity,” said Richard Powers, a social and historic dance instructor at Stanford University.

Mr. Powers teaches waltzing and foxtrotting to 300 undergraduates, often using the soundtrack of “Crazy Rich Asians” or Bollywood music to reflect their cultural backgrounds. For three decades, he has espoused the numerous health benefits of dance to students, including enhancing one’s abilities to handle stress and adaptability to change. Students often tell him that they feel increased concentration in classes they attend right after social dance.

One of the attention-getting moments from Mr. Manning’s 85th birthday party video is when he flips a redhead in a black and red minidress around his hip and over his shoulder. It’s his signature dance move, the same one he showcased at age 27 in workman’s overalls in the 1941 movie “Hellzapoppin.

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