Updated: Aug 28
As we age it seems our friends are struggling with one problem or another. Perhaps you have friends with osteoporosis and you worry you might get it too. You might already know that both adequate nutrition and exercise can help reduce your risk of osteoporosis.
If you’re like 45% of Australian adults[i], you probably need to do more exercise. But what happens if you can’t find an exercise you enjoy? What if you hate the gym, or find running too strenuous or boring? What if you get bored in yoga or pilates classes, or you have trouble establishing a regular walking routine?
[i] According to data from the 2016 Census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics
At Dragonfly Dance, when I ask people why they dance with us, one of the most common responses is because they knew they needed to exercise more, and dancing is a way to exercise that doesn’t really feel like exercise.
“I realised I needed to do more exercise. I hate doing exercise, but I love dancing.” Ann Lewis
There are plenty of reasons why doing dance classes is a great way to exercise in general, and to maintain bone density as you age, but before going into that, let’s dig in a little to what osteoporosis actually is, the influence on age as a risk factor, and how to reduce the risk.
Bone density and osteoporosis
One of the consequences of insufficient exercise is reduced bone density and strength. As you may know, low bone density can lead to osteoporosis, which means your bones become brittle and fragile, and are more likely to break. It’s common for people suffering from osteoporosis to fracture their hips, wrists, and vertebrae. They can get compression fractures in the spine which cause pain and reduce mobility. Osteoporosis can also lead joint pain and stiffness as the cartilage in your joints breaks down, meaning that you lose the cushioning between bones.
When does bone density start to fall?
Did you know that peak bone mass and size is achieved around the age of 15-20 years for women? It’s highly likely that from your 30s onwards, your bone density will decrease. And if you’re a woman, the lower oestrogen levels associated with menopause means you’re even more likely to lose more bone than your body makes once you’ve passed ‘the change’. In the 10 years after menopause, women can lose 40% of their spongy, inner bone, and 10% of their hard, outer bone. The consequences of that, if left unchecked, is that you could end up with osteoporosis, and a much greater chance of breaking bones, which can seriously impact on your capacity to live independently. Women are more susceptible than men to fractures and breaks because their bones are smaller and thinner than men’s to start with, so they are more fragile and vulnerable to developing osteoporosis.
Preventing osteoporosis starts now
Okay, so perhaps independence is the last thing on your mind right now. You could be in your 30s or 40s, and you’re not worrying at all about what happens when you hit 60 or 70 (except perhaps making sure you contribute enough to your super fund). Or maybe you’re already in your 50s or 60s, and starting to think about what your retirement will look like.
It doesn’t matter how many years it is until you have to worry about maintaining independent living. It’s now that you need to be sowing the seeds. Especially when it comes to the health of your bones.
Our bones are dynamic organs that undergo a continual self-regeneration process called ‘remodelling’. Remodelling removes old bone and replaces it with new bone. With aging, this balance shifts in a negative direction, and you don’t make enough new bone to replace the old, degenerated bone. So while you’re young, you need to do all you can to build strong bones. And if you’re older, you need to start building that bone density ASAP to delay degeneration.
So what can you do maintain the balance of degeneration and regeneration in your bones?
Firstly, make sure you eat foods rich in calcium and Vitamin D, and get out in the sun often enough to absorb Vitamin D through your skin. Second, avoid activities that hasten the degeneration of bone tissue, like smoking and drinking too much alcohol. And third, make sure you do enough weight bearing exercise throughout your life.
You might have heard that you need to do weight bearing exercise when you’re a child or teenager to ensure strong bones when you are older. And this is true to some extent. But regardless of how old you are, you’ll be doing your bones a favour by doing more weight bearing exercise now and throughout your life. So you better make sure the exercise you do is something you can keep doing. Something you won’t get bored with.
How dance can prevent loss of bone density
Not all exercises have the same ability to keep your bones strong. It needs to be weight bearing. ‘Weight bearing exercise’ is exercise done while on your feet so you bear your own weight, and where it sustains some kind of impact. These types of activities put more tension on your muscles and it more pressure on your bones, which then respond by creating fresh, new bone. This means that exercises like swimming or cycling don’t make the grade. These are great for cardiovascular fitness and weight management, but not for weight bearing.
Osteoporosis Australia recommends that exercise needs to be regular (at least three times per week), the challenge of the exercise should increase or progress over time (increase amount of weight, intensity, height of jump), it should be varied, and performed in short, intensive bursts.
Don’t you think that dancing just fits the bill perfectly? It is weight bearing (and sometimes you might even bear weight on your arms as well as your legs), and it also involves steps of elevation, like running, jumping, hopping, springing from foot to foot. When you land from these kinds of movements, you put additional tension on your muscles and pressure on your bones than when just standing, which stimulates your body to create more bone. There is a great deal of variety in the exercises you’d do in a single dance class, and the exercises also change over time. And finallly, it is performed in short, intensive bursts. You learn the exercise, and then perform it full out.
A British study in 1995[i] compared ballet dancers and non-dancers and found that the dancers had higher bone mineral density than the non-dancers, particularly in their legs and pelvis.
[i] Physical Activity, Body Composition and Bone Density in Ballet Dancers. WD van Marken, Lichtenbelt et al, British Journal of Nutrition, 1995 Oct, 74(4):439-51
“I’m not a keen exerciser. Certainly running has never interested me. I find the gym boring and repetitive. So dance has given me an avenue to exercise that I will go and do and enjoy doing. So it motivates me to exercise and participate with others too. If I go to the gym I’m thinking ‘how many more of these do I need to do’, whereas when I’m dancing it just takes me somewhere else. I’m just totally with my body, and what I’m doing and the music. Dance is an escape in some ways but it takes me to a positive place, not just away from whatever if bothering me, it transports me to a lovely place.” Marg Whelan
Dance is exercise you want to keep doing
But I think the thing about dancing that makes it such a great way to maintain good bone health is that it is fun and engaging. It’s not like an exercise regime when you spend the whole time wondering how many more minutes you have, or how many more times you need to repeat a movement. Many people who come to Move Through Life Dance Studio tell me that time flies by. They are so busy enjoying the music and the movement, or focussing on learning and coordinating steps, that they forget how hard their body is working.
Another great thing about a dance class is that you have a set time and day when you are booked into class. It’s not like getting up in the morning and thinking you’ll postpone your morning walk until evening, and then find that you are too tired once you get home. With a dance class, the time and place and set, and so you have that little extra motivational kick to get you moving.
“If I didn’t start dance classes, I would have been really unfit. I really hate the gym. I find I’ll go for a walk but I’m not someone who says I’ll go for a walk evert dat. If I had to rely on my own resources to get fit I won’t. But I go to a dance class, even if it’s 8 o’clock in winter, because I have a good time.” Ann Lewis
“If I didn’t start dance classes, I would have been really unfit. I really hate the gym. I find I’ll go for a walk but I’m not someone who says I’ll go for a walk evert dat. If I had to rely on my own resources to get fit I won’t. But I go to a dance class, even if it’s 8 o’clock in winter, because I have a good time.” Ann Lewis”I wake up on Thursday morning and I think ‘woo hoo it’s dance class day!’ I really, really look forward to it. If I woke up and it was gym day I’d probably stay in bed. Because the classes are so much fun.” Kate King
Variation and progressive overload
One of the things about dance that makes it so great for maintaining muscle mass and bone density is that it constantly changes. In order to create stress on the muscles and bones, you need progressive overload, which means you’re constantly upping the ante so your muscles and bones respond.
With dance, you learn different exercises and routines which put stress on different body parts, and you also progress by learning longer or more complex movement sequences, and by increasing intensity with the speed or height of leg movements or jumps, for example. And this constant change is not just good for your bones, but good for you mind. Learning new steps and combinations helps keep you interested and stops boredom creeping in.
Variation of complexity and intensity
Dance is also adaptable, in that you can vary the complexity or level of intensity depending on what your body is able to cope with. At Dragonfly Dance, we do have some classes specifically for people aged over 50, and some that are open to all ages and have people younger and older than fifty. Even in the over 50s classes, there is a lot of variation in the fitness, strength, flexibility, coordination, and more between participants, but dance is the kind of exercises that can be adjusted to accommodate your needs.
For example, a younger and fitter person can perform a multiple turn on demi-pointe, whereas someone else may choose to keep it on an almost flat foot and only do a single turn (or not turn at all). If your ankles or knees can’t take the impact of a hop or jump, you can modify the movement so that you don’t actually leave the floor.
Choose the dance style you prefer
We offer different styles of dance so you can choose one that suits you. We have a class for you, whether you enjoy the rhythm of tap, the grace of ballet, the creativity of contemporary, the sass and style of jazz, or the focus and awareness of dance conditioning.
Find out more
Visit our Classes page to find out more about the types of dance we offer, times, and levels.
References used to compile this article
Dragonfly Dance offers dance classes to adults of all ages in ballet, contemporary, jazz, and tap. We pride ourselves on offering you a place to indulge your love of dance, whether you’re a complete beginner, had a long break from dance, or danced all your life. Our classes have a broad mix of ages, and our philosophy is that you are never too old to dance, it is never too late to start, and you can dance forever!
If you have any questions, give us a call on 08 7073 2069 firstname.lastname@example.org