From burning calories to socializing with friends, dancing offers these health benefits:

Calories – Dancing can burn as many calories as walking, swimming or riding a bicycle.  During a half hour of sustained dancing you can burn between 200 and 400 calories.  One factor that determines how many calories you’ll expend is distance.  In one study, researchers attached pedometers to square dancers and found each person covered nearly five miles in a single evening.

Cardiovascular conditioning – Regular exercise can lead to a slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and an improved cholesterol profile.   Experts typically recommend 30 to 40 minutes of continuous activity three to four times a week.  Dancing may not provide all the conditioning you need, but it can help.  The degree of cardiovascular conditioning depends on how vigorously you dance, how long you dance continuously and how regularly you do it.

Strong bones – The side-to-side movements of many dances strengthen your weight bearing bones (tibia, fibula and femur) and can help prevent or slow loss of bone mass (osteoporosis).

Rehabilitation – If you’re recovering from heart or knee surgery, movement may be part of your rehabilitation.  Dancing is a positive alternative to aerobic dance or jogging.

Sociability – Dancing contains a social component that solitary fitness endeavors don’t.  It gives you an opportunity to develop strong social ties which contribute to self-esteem and a positive outlook (see Mayo Clinic Health Letter, February 1992).

Tomorrow night when you consider settling down for a little television, turn on the music instead.  After a few spins around the living room, you’ll have so much fun you may forget you’re exercising.

Health benefits and risks to dancing depend on how much oomph you put into it.   Different types of dance require varying amount of energy.  If you have heart disease or other medical concerns, check with your doctor before taking up dance as a new activity.  Then follow these steps:

Warm up – Before starting to dance, spend a few minutes stretching.   Practice a few dance steps to prepare your muscles for activity.

Ease into the pace – Begin with slower, less demanding rhythms and build up to faster tempos.  Easing into activities lessens the chance of pulling or straining a muscle.

Know your limits – Take breaks from dancing if you feel undue fatigue or shortness of breath.  If necessary, sit out the next number.

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