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A new study finds postmenopausal women can dance into better heart health

A new study has found that postmenopausal women who begin a dance program may experience multiple health benefits.
/ Source: TODAY

Postmenopausal women looking to lose weight or boost their heart health might want to take up ballroom dancing or join a hip-hop dance class. A new study published in Menopause, the journal of The North American Menopause Society, finds that women who danced three times a week changed their body composition and metabolic health all while bolstering their self-esteem.

“We expected improvement in body composition, functional fitness, self-image and self-esteem,” Camila Buonani da Silva, a professor at Sao Paulo State University in Brazil and one of the authors of the study, told TODAY via email. “Although we (had) asked (them) not to change eating habits, there was an improvement in the lipid profile, which surprised us. We believe that this improvement occurred because women started to take care of themselves more when they began to feel the benefits of regular physical activity.”

For the study, the researchers asked 36 sedentary women to participate in dance three times a week for 90 minutes for 16 weeks. Researchers examined their triglyceride levels, HDL cholesterol (often called good cholesterol), their capacity for exercise and self-esteem. After dancing for four months, women had lower triglycerides, higher HDL levels, increased ability to exercise and better self-image.

“(The paper) is mostly adding to our understanding, and I particularly like that they used not some structured exercise program, but a dance program. I thought that was a unique part about it,” Dr. Stephanie Faubion, NAMS medical director and director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Women’s Health, who was not involved in the research, told TODAY. “One of the things that I’m not sure that they could capture is that the women might have benefitted from a sense of camaraderie.”

While the paper reinforces the importance of exercise in postmenopausal women’s health, it also proves that the type of exercise doesn't have to be intense or difficult. They can choose an activity they love to improve their fitness.

“It’s not particularly onerous,” Faubion said. “It’s something fun.”

Dr. Helena Pietragallo, an OB-GYN at UPMC Magee Womens Hospital Midlife Health Center, who wasn’t involved in the study, said the paper’s strength is that it looks at a type of exercise that many overlook.

“We often talk about the importance of exercise and movement as part of a lot of pieces of menopausal health,” she told TODAY. “This is really interesting, looking at something that we don’t generally think of a typical mode of exercise. It’s great because it’s looking at something that might be really attractive to some women that they might not think of as being their usual 30 minutes of exercise.”

The experts hope this encourages women to find an activity they feel engaged with as a way of maintaining or improving their health after menopause.

“What we’re really trying to emphasize is finding something that works for patients particularly if they’re not already an active exercising person,” Pietragallo said. “I love the idea of being able to present dance as an option.”

After going through menopause, women are at higher risk for cardiovascular, joint and bone problems. Exercise can be a good way to combat the added threats.

“We see an increase in cardiovascular risk in menopausal patients,” Pietragallo said. “By decreasing triglycerides and increasing HDL that will improve cardiovascular health. In terms of bone health, certainly doing any kind of weight-bearing exercise really adds to the patient’s bone health … Exercise can also decrease the risk of falling and imbalance, which can cause so many issues for women.”

While the paper provides a more inclusive look at exercise, it does have some downsides. The study included a small sample size and didn’t have a control group, such as women who did not exercise or women who tried a different type of workout.

“They also didn’t monitor food consumption or dietary makeup of the participants so it could have been that some of these metabolic changes were related to the fact that they were feeling better about themselves," Faubion said. "They were exercising so people tend to eat better.”

Buonani da Silva admitted that some of the changes could be attributed to the women developing new eating habits, too. And, Pietragallo said she wished that they examined a program that women could do at home or independently because it would make it easier for more women to participate.

“I always like to see a study that has something that anybody can do from their home," she said. “When it comes to exercise, especially in sedentary patients, who are not exercising, making something convenient to them that they can do at home and they can do easily really helps to pique their interest.”

Still, the experts agree that this study shows a moderate fun activity contributes to improvements in postmenopausal women’s health.

“It’s always good to remember that the best exercise is one that we like to do,” Buonani da Silva said. “Dance for these women can be a drug without side effects that can reduce the impacts of aging and promote mental and physical health.”