Fit steps

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      For fun, healthy moves step off that treadmill and onto the dance floor.

      Does your partner wilt at the suggestion that you go dancing? Now there’s good reason to drag your wallflower out to bust some moves. Dancing—apart from being one of life’s basic mating rituals—can keep you as limber as other aerobic exercises, boost your quality of life, and just might help you live longer, according to an Italian study presented at the American Heart Association’s 2006 Scientific Sessions in November.

      Researchers at the Lancisi Heart Institute in Ancona found that regular dancing improved the functional capacity and quality of life of people with chronic heart failure. The footwork doesn’t have to be fancy or fast, either. In fact, study participants showed cardiovascular improvements after only two months of thrice-weekly, 20-minute slow-waltz sessions.

      As part of the study, 44 patients exercised on a stationary bike or treadmill three times a week, 44 danced, and 22 did nothing. Their heart rates were monitored at the start of the exercise program and eight weeks into it. They also underwent an exercise-stress test to gauge functional ability and completed a questionnaire on quality-of-life measures such as sleeping, hobbies, housework, sexual activity, level of worry, and depression.

      The dancers demonstrated physical improvements equal to or more than those who exercised on a bike or treadmill in the following areas: cardiopulmonary fitness, oxygen consumption, anaerobic threshold (the point above which there’s fatigue), respiration, and arterial elasticity. And they significantly outdid the others in improved well-being.

      The findings are good news, reported lead author Dr. Romualdo Belardinelli in his presentation. Not only is dancing good for your heart, it’s also fun—so people are more likely to continue doing it three times a week than they are sweating it out on a treadmill or stationary bike in solitude.

      He might be onto something. Just ask participants of a fitness form called Nia (for neuromuscular integrative action), which started about two decades ago in Portland, Oregon, as an alternative to the no-pain, no-gain aerobics movement.

      Nia is based on the idea that the path of least resistance will lead to a more balanced form of exercise, one that includes spiritual well-being. Barefoot workouts, set to music ranging from Celtic to Latin, blend low-impact dance, martial arts, and yoga moves in a fitness fusion. Vancouver teacher Judy Cashmore insists you can break a sweat. “You do build muscle and burn calories,” she says. “You can be jumping, for example, but with awareness, tracking sensations so that you’re not pushing against the grain.”

      Plus, styles like Nia are a form of weight-bearing exercise, which is essential to the development and maintenance of strong, healthy bones. And dancing can help improve balance, posture, stamina, and flexibility.

      Kirsty Cameron, a 21-year old university student who has been taking Nia classes since last September, says she had reservations at first, but loves it now. “I’ve taken regular aerobics classes and always about halfway through I’d be thinking ”˜Oh God, when is it going to end?’ In Nia, I sweat, but when it’s over, I’m like ”˜No, not yet. Please don’t be over.’”

      So, unless you’re training for the Ironman or want a body as hard as Rocky’s used to be, why not try dance? Chances are you’ll keep at it long enough to make a difference— to your physical and mental well-being, longevity, and even your love life.