Falls are the main cause of injury among adults age 65 and better. Loss of postural control (the ability to maintain balance) and loss of strength are significant risk factors for falling. Resistance training is an effective way to increase strength, however, its benefits seem restricted to developing power and peak force rather than improving balance. There are clinically effective balance improvement programs, but in practice, these are difficult for individuals to maintain interest in, as they have typically involved minimal social interaction.
A group of researchers in Germany and Switzerland hypothesized that salsa dancing—which demands a high degree of balance and leg force—might be a way to provide older adults with effective and sustainable strength and balance training. Salsa dancing has become popular in recent years among younger and older adults in Europe, the United States, and Canada as well as in Latin America where it originates. This fast-paced style of partnered dance involves frequent changes in direction and rapid movement, so it requires significant postural control and muscle strength.
Because of the need to make such moves in time with music, the researchers hypothesized that salsa classes might improve gait movement in addition to strength and balance. The musical and social nature of the dance is likely to make the classes more appealing to individuals than would a more typically clinical balance training program.
To test the hypotheses that salsa dance training would improve postural control and leg strength among older adults, researchers recruited 28 older adult participants, assigning half of them to a control group, and half to an eight week salsa dancing program. The salsa group met twice a week for 60-minute sessions that began with ten minutes of dance-specific warm-ups. These sessions were led by a professional dance instructor who met with the participants in groups of six or eight (the salsa group was divided in half to keep the student to teacher ratio low).
The sessions gradually increased in difficulty over time, and had a high participant retention rate, with participants attending an average of 92.5 percent of all planned sessions. Participants in the control group were not provided with any structured activity and were instructed to maintain their normal level of physical activity during the eight week period.
When tested after eight weeks, participants in the salsa dancing group showed noteworthy improvements in their stride, which was also significantly better than in the control group;within this group, stride was faster, quicker, and longer after eight weeks of salsa dancing. Interestingly, both the control and the salsa groups had significant improvements in their muscle strength over the eight week period.
Participants in the salsa group showed a slight overall average improvement in measures of postural control relative to the control group, but these improvements were not statistically significant. While it may take a larger study with more participants to more conclusively demonstrate the falls reduction benefits of salsa dancing, this study suggests that salsa dancing can be a safe, interesting way for older adults to improve their strength and balance.