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Getting old? Try the tango

October 16, 2008 |  2:16 pm

Tango1The key to remaining healthy and active in old age is to regularly engage in challenging physical and mental tasks, experts tell us time and again. So, tango, anyone?

A study from researchers at the McGill School of Physical and Occupational Therapy in Montreal suggests that learning to tango has all the elements seniors need: physical activity, mental stimulation and social connection. Learning to tango also appears to have a bonus: It may improve balance skills.

Patricia McKinley, who earned her PhD in kinesiology from UCLA, enrolled 30 people, ages 62 to 91, in one of two groups: a walking class or a tango class. All of the study participants were identified as being at risk for falling. After 10 weeks of classes, which met for two hours twice a week, the participants were evaluated. The tango group had greater improvements in balance, posture, motor coordination and cognitive gains than the walking group.

Teaching a complex dance to people already a bit shaky on their feet might not seem like a wise thing to do. But the tango instructor started slowly and worked carefully with the students, McKinley says. Receiving detailed instruction on how to transfer weight and maintaining good posture helped the seniors feel more steady on their feet. "There were individuals who used canes to walk, but were comfortable dancing without them," she notes. Moving to music, in addition, seems to help people improve their gait.

But mostly, the dancers had a good time being challenged with such a complex and beautiful dance, McKinley says. "I think that we are underestimating what our senior population can and should do," she says. "In the exit interviews with the seniors, they strongly expressed that they loved the challenge of doing something difficult and were very satisfed with themselves as well."

McKinley, an associate professor at the McGill School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, says her research group is looking at other novel, fun ways that seniors can remain active -- including spending time on playgrounds designed for children. The study is published in this month's edition of Journal of Aging and Physical Activity.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Alejandro Pagni / AFP / Getty Images