Just Naturally Healthy

Try This Simple Rhythmic Exercise That Instantly Improves Muscle Function

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When it comes to getting your groove on, you may consider yourself among the rhythm-challenged, with two left feet and a repertoire confined to wedding-induced displays of the funky chicken. The words fun and dance have never gone together in your mind. But lock the door, close the blinds, and give it a try with no one else around because dancing truly is an easy way to get into shape. You may even discover that it makes you smile—or in some cases, laugh out loud.

In recent years, dancing has stepped up—and out—to health clubs, rec centers, and dance studios, as the newest get-fit craze, thanks in part to the hit TV show “Dancing With the Stars.” This jazzy alternative to the more traditional aerobic activities like walking, running, and cycling, “offers many wonderful physical, mental, and social benefits,” says Polly de Mille, RN, exercise physiologist with the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, making it an appealing choice, “especially when compared to gym workouts.”

Let’s get physical

Whether you indulge in belly dancing, hip hop, jazz, or the funky chicken, you reap as many cardiovascular rewards as you would by taking a brisk walk or a long bike ride and burn at least as many calories. And, while you’re busy dancing off those pounds, your skeletal system gets weight-bearing benefits: all that foot-stomping activity builds muscular strength and bone density throughout your entire body.

Feeling a little stiff in the joints? Then start dancing. Because you move in multiple directions—side-to-side, forward-and-back, in circles, and even in squares—you increase mobility in your joints. “Having good range of motion through the joints will help you function better day-to-day, whether you are picking objects up off the floor or lifting something overhead,” de Mille says. One study found that young adults who followed a three-month dance-training program increased range of motion in their hips and flexibility in their spine.

With those multidirectional patterns come improved balance and agility, too, something gym workouts typically don’t focus on. Balance decreases as you age (one reason older adults are at such risk for falls), but don’t wait till you’re too old to rock out: By working it now, you can stave off all sorts of age-related declines, de Mille says.

Although you won’t experience a hard-core aerobic workout doing ballet, you will improve your posture. “Ballet teaches you to lift up and out of your center and encourages you to lengthen,” says Caron Bosler, a Pilates trainer in London and author of 15 Minute Dance Workout (DK, 2008). “It’s impossible to stand beautifully in ballet and then slouch through your everyday life.”

Focus, focus

Beyond the physical, shimmying, twirling, and twisting bestow more subtle benefits. Numerous studies cite its mental stimulation and mind-body connection as possible protectors against dementia, depression, and stress. “Because you have to focus all of your mental energy on coordinating the steps with posture, poise, grace, and music, you can’t think about your grocery list or anything else that’s worrying you,” Bosler says, adding that dance can also improve your self-esteem.

Bosler has designed a ballet-inspired dance routine you can practice at home. Do the sequence that begins on page 68 as often as you’d like, and note that some of the moves include harder options if you want a more aerobic workout.

Once you gain a little confidence, Bosler encourages you to sign up for a dance class. Not only will you get hands-on instruction, you’ll also love the sense of camaraderie you’ll experience in a class full of energetic, like-minded dancers, and that social connection will give your health and outlook yet another positive boost.

Karen Asp is a Fort Wayne, Indiana–based journalist who specializes in fitness, health, and nutrition.

Leap the Light Fantastic

Beat the winter doldrums with this ballet-inspired dance sequence designed by Pilates and yoga trainer Caron Bosler.

1. Hamstring curls

Stand with feet hip-width apart, step on your right foot, and bend your left knee. Kick your left foot toward your left glute as you swing your right arm to the side at shoulder height and bring your left arm forward in front of your chest as if hugging a tree. Step onto left foot, and repeat on opposite side. (For more of a challenge, add a hop as you step.) Continue alternating until you’ve completed eight times on each side.

2. Forward and back

Starting on your left foot, walk or jog forward three steps. Step right foot to the side. Now cross left leg behind right, and stretch left arm overhead while circling right arm down by your hips. You should feel like you’re curtseying. Step left foot to side and cross right behind left, repeating the curtsey on this side. Starting with right foot, walk or jog back three steps as you circle the arms back overhead and repeat one more time.

3. Attitude

Stand with feet together, torso tall, arms extended overhead. Shift weight to right foot, and lift left knee in front of your body to hip height. (For more of a challenge, jump on right foot as you lift left
knee.) At the same time, move right elbow toward left knee. Now step on left foot, and repeat, alternating for a total of eight times.

4. Passé

Stand with feet together, legs and feet turned out in first position. Step or jump onto right foot. Keeping legs turned out, lift left foot off floor, and bend left knee, placing left foot on inside of right knee so left knee points to the side. Extend right arm to side at shoulder height and left arm in front of body at chest level. Step or jump onto left foot, and repeat to the other side, alternating for a total of eight times.

5. Toe taps

Stand with feet hip-width, toes turned out in second position, arms lowered in front of body by thighs. Step onto left foot, and point right foot to side, tapping toes lightly on floor. Twist upper torso to left, and extend right arm across body at chest height. Step onto right foot and repeat, alternating for a total of eight times.

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