Scottish dancing can help keep old age at bay

IT HAS been taught in Scottish schools for generations and is world-famous for its boisterous reels and jigs and its smooth strathspeys.

A new study suggests Scottish country dancing can improve the health of those who take part. Picture: TSPL

But new research suggests that Scottish country dancing could also delay the ageing process. Older women who regularly take part in Scottish country dancing are fitter than those of the same age who carry out other forms of exercise, scientists have found.

The researchers believe the skipping and step-changing of the lively activity can “delay the effects of ageing” on women’s ability to carry out daily physical activities.

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Scottish country dancing – from ceilidhs and parties to classes and competitions – is a popular event across Scotland and the globe.

Taught in school gym halls for decades, its best-known dances include the Dashing White Sergeant, the Eightsome Reel, the Gay Gordons, and Strip The Willow.

Now a study by the University of Strathclyde and the Active Ageing Research Group at the University of Cumbria has found that participating can help women retain their youthfulness.

Their study tested the fitness levels of women who took part in Scottish country dancing, to women who did walking, swimming and yoga.

It compared a group of 26 Scottish country dancers, with at least ten years of experience, with a group of 34 healthy, physically active women who did not participate in Scottish country dancing. All the women were in their 60s and 70s and did the same amount of physical exercise each week.

The dancers and non-dancers in their 60s had similar levels of fitness. However, the dancers in their 70s were just as fit as those in their 60s. But the women in their 70s who did not dance were less fit than younger counterparts.

The scientists say Scottish country dancing prevented the age-related decline in fitness that would usually be expected of women in their 70s.

They believe the specific movements in Scottish country dance – forwards and sideways, turning and spinning to different rhythms during different set dances – trains the body to remain strong and responsive.

Dr Susan Dewhurst, lead researcher and an exercise physiologist at the University of Cumbria, said: “The group of women who did not participate in Scottish country dancing followed the normal age-related decline in their functional fitness that would be expected. However, they were very active, doing walking, yoga and swimming.

“Scottish country dancing delayed or prevented this age- related decline. This is thought to be because of the movement patterns involved, such as turning, hopping and stepping which are more challenging than walking or swimming.”

“It encourages upright posture and keeps muscles strong and responsive. The social aspect makes it a fun way to support healthy ageing because when there’s a social element people are more likely to stick with it.”

The women were tested on how far they could walk in a few minutes, how fast they could cover six metres and how far they could reach towards their toes while seated.

These tests were designed to mimic daily tasks such as crossing the road and getting out of a chair, which become more difficult as people get older.

The study, published in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, concluded: “Scottish country dance can delay the effects of aging on locomotion-related functional abilities.”

The authors add that physical degeneration, a conseq­uence of older age, severely affects quality of life and puts a strain on health services. But regular physical activity, however, can lessen the potentially disabling effects of ageing.

Scottish country dancing became popular during the 18th century but although country dancing has its origins in folk dance, its Scottish form was enjoyed by the wealthier and more educated classes of the Renaissance.

Elizabeth Foster, executive officer, of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (RSCDS) welcomed the research. She said: “This adds to a growing bank of evidence that points to the overall health benefits of Scottish country dancing. In particular, it supports other studies which show that Scottish country dancing is superior to other forms of physical activity in building and maintaining levels of fitness and mobility.”

She added: “The RSCDS Health Strategy, which was dev­eloped in response to many proven health benefits, encourages those with a range of health issues or people who are looking to improve their fitness to be actively involved in Scottish country dance.”