How Dancing Helps Your Mental Health

an asian chinese female ballet dancer practising in ballet studio near window waist up

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Some people prefer to dance on their own to their favorite songs on Spotify or on the radio. Others want to learn ballroom dancing or hip-hop. Or take a tango class at their local community center.

Whether you prefer solo dancing or being involved in a more formalized and choreographed program, dancing offers obvious plusses to your physical health.

You’re not only moving your body in a rhythmic way and expressing feelings. You’re burning calories and getting a workout for sure.

But this creative, fun physical activity is also a boon to your brain functioning. You’re taking a break from work, family, and everyday stressors. You’re turning off the incessant worry and negative self-talk. Lastly, you don’t have time to ruminate while you dance.

The benefits to your mental health that come from dancing might not be so readily apparent, but they are many and profound.

Free-Flowing Dance

According to a UCLA Health study published in the August 2021 issue of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, conscious, free-flowing dance produced positive mental health benefits among participants. It was based on a survey of 1,000 dancers across the world who had depression, anxiety, or a history of trauma.

A huge majority—98%—of all dancers said the practice improved their mood. Many also reported that conscious dance gave them more confidence and compassion.

Prabha Siddarth, PhD, research statistician at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and senior author on the study noted how participants felt in the flow or in the zone by performing this self-led dance.

Choreographed Dance

In another recent study, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers compared the effects of walking, stretching, and dancing on the wiring and gray matter of the aging brain. Dancing had the most notable positive effect.

After recruiting volunteers in their 60s and 70s with healthy brains that didn’t show signs of cognitive impairment, researchers randomly placed them in three groups. One group walked, another stretched and did balance training and the last group learned country dancing. The choreography of the dancing became progressively more challenging over time.

They all did the assigned activity for one hour a day, three times a week. After a period of six months, the volunteers’ brains were re-scanned and compared to when they had begun their regimens.

Agnieszka Burzynska, the study’s lead author who is currently a Neuroscientist and Director of the BRAiN Lab at Colorado State University, but was formerly from the University of Illinois in Urbana, found only one group showed an improvement—the country dancers.

The participants who learned country dancing now had denser white matter in the part of the brain that processed memory. White matter usually breaks down as a person ages, which may contribute to cognitive decline. Dancing, therefore, protected the brain from aging-induced neurodegeneration. So, dancing is not only an aerobic activity good for your physical health. It helps your brain!

Country dancing, ballroom dancing, tango, salsa, and waltz are all done with others. When you participate in these dances, you’re involved in a beneficial social activity as well. You are also cognitively stimulating your brain as you learn the steps to the dances. Dancing therefore might be one of the best physical activities you can choose for brain health.

Synchronized Dance

In another recent study, based in Brazil, synchronized dancing with others enabled people to feel closer to each other and fostered friendship. It also raised pain tolerance.

When you synchronize with the people next to you in a Zumba class or a flash mob, you’re doing a form of collective dancing to music. This is great for feelings of closeness with others.  

In the research study, when participants danced, happy chemicals called endorphins were released. Endorphins are integral in the human bonding processes. Thus, they—and we—feel closer to others we are dancing with.

In this particular study, researchers wanted to see the effect of endorphins on pain. Pain was measured by the steady inflation of a blood pressure cuff on the subjects’ non-dominant arms. Study participants were asked to indicate when the pressure became uncomfortable while they danced.

The results of the research showed that those moving most energetically and in synchrony bonded with others, and also had a higher pain threshold.

Dance Therapy

Some people opt for dance or movement therapy. It’s defined by the American Dance Therapy Association (ADTA) as the "psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, social, cognitive, and physical integration of the individual," for the purpose of improving health and well-being.

A research study was conducted on the effects of movement and dance on health-related psychological outcomes. Its findings were promising. The benefits of movement and dance included increased quality of life and interpersonal skills while at the same time lowering depression and anxiety.

If you hadn’t considered dance yet, think again about incorporating dance into your physical and mental health programs.

Benefits of Dance

There are so many benefits to dancing. Let's take at the mental and physical benefits of dancing.

Mental Health Benefits of Dance

  • Keeps mind sharp
  • Improves self-esteem
  • Involves social skills
  • Increase endorphins
  • Easy to bond with others
  • Improves your mood
  • Lessens loneliness
  • Eases depression
  • Lowers anxiety
  • Decreases rumination
  • Helps memory
  • May prevent dementia
  • Raises pain threshold
  • Reduces pain perception

 Physical Health Benefits of Dance

  • Improves muscle tone
  • Increases muscle strength
  • Raises heart rate
  • Improves lungs
  • Increases circulation
  • Lowers risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Boosts aerobic fitness
  • Improves posture
  • Makes stronger bones
  • Reduces risk of osteoporosis
  • Helps weight management
  • Improves flexibility
  • Better coordination and agility
  • Increased endurance

A Word From Verywell

For those who are older and worried about injury, as with most activities, work with a certified professional. This person will guide you on how to work with any physical limitation and help you prevent injury. Dance therapists should be fully credentialed and can offer you ways to improve your well-being with a step-by-step plan.

If you never considered dancing due to self-consciousness, you are far from alone. Many people fear that once they get up and move, they will look foolish and that all eyes will be upon them. The fact of the matter is most people are focused on their own dancing and having a good time. Practice with a friend or take lessons. Once you get on the dance floor, you might even find dancing to be a fun way to improve both your physical and mental well-being.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Laird KT, Vergeer I, Hennelly SE, Siddarth P. Conscious dance: Perceived benefits and psychological well-being of participants. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice. 2021;44.

  2. Burzynska AZ, Jiao Y, Knecht AM, et al. White Matter Integrity Declined Over 6-Months, but Dance Intervention Improved Integrity of the Fornix of Older AdultsFront Aging Neurosci. 2017;9:59. Published 2017 Mar 16. doi:10.3389/fnagi.2017.00059

  3. Tarr B, Launay J, Cohen E, Dunbar R. Synchrony and exertion during dance independently raise pain threshold and encourage social bondingBiol Lett. 2015;11(10):20150767. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2015.0767

  4. Koch SC, Riege RFF, Tisborn K, Biondo J, Martin L, Beelmann A. Effects of Dance Movement Therapy and Dance on Health-Related Psychological Outcomes. A Meta-Analysis Update. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1806. Published 2019 Aug 20. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01806

By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.