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Have Fun Dancing... and Get Fit

Phil Martin

Track stars with five-minute miles may earn athletic glory and professional dancers may get Hollywood glamour, but both can burn the same amount of calories.
“Dancing can be as energetic and athletic as anything you’ve ever done,” said Kinesiology’s Phil Martin, who not only has taught at the university every semester since 1983, but he also acquired a master’s degree from CSULB in 1977. “It is possible for dancers to burn calories at a faster rate than someone running a five-minute mile.” Martin teaches social dance at CSULB and has created 17 videos on how to dance and keep fit. Currently, he’s working on a 15-year study of dance as exercise involving 5,000 students.

“People who do social dances such as the cha-cha, swing and polka normally burn between 318 and 655 calories per hour,” Martin explained. “There are those who have burned more than 1,200 calories in an hour while participating in my studies. That latter figure is higher than the calorie-burning rate of a man running a five-minute mile.”

Getting into the proper frame of mind is important. “You can get into your aerobic exercise benefit zone quite easily by doing a variety of dances such as the cha-cha, the polka, swing or salsa,” he said. “Faster waltzes, country line dances and international folk dances can easily raise your heart rate to aerobic benefit levels. But dance has a secret weapon over the five-minute mile. It’s fun.

“People don’t realize they are exercising,” Martin continued. “They socialize while they react to the music. They can often dance for hours without really noticing they’re exercising.”

As in life, timing is everything. “You need to stay in your exercise benefit zone for 20 minutes to an hour for a workout,” he said. “You can build up to 20-30 minutes of exercise easily. Dancing for 10 minutes or so several times during a day can add up to a good aerobic workout. A night out dancing can result in hours of aerobic exercise. The great thing about dancing is that even a few minutes of it combined with good music and socialization can improve your mood and your health.”

Dance has a place in just about anyone’s fitness regimen. “I’ve had students ranging from age 4 to 84 in my classes,” he said. “One thing about dancing is that it can help you forget your aches and pains. We all love music and we all love to socialize.”

As opposed to the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s, the cha-cha and samba are step dances that need practice. But there are advantages.

“Dancing offers a variety of motion,” he said. “You use different muscles. You are not as likely to overuse a particular joint as in running. Different steps keep dancers energized avoiding monotony and resulting in frequent participation. People can keep learning different steps for the rest of their lives and always have a variety to choose from.”

Martin’s average social dance class numbers around 45. More than 300 students take his classes each semester.

“I’ve seen students go from those who never danced to teaching friends how to dance at weddings,” he said. “That’s the thing about dance. It makes you happier. Not only can that strengthen your immune system, but it helps you deal better with stress. It can help you perform better academically as well. I’ve talked to counselors who had students who were ready to quit school until they took a dance class and suddenly found themselves leading the campus in an event. Dance is something that is so enjoyable for many that it becomes a life-long mood enhancer.”

Dancing for fun and fitness can be a life-changing experience.

“Some students of mine that graduated years ago still get together for the semester-end class dance, other dance outings, the holidays, and during rough times as well,” he said. “I’ve seen students that met in social dance class as freshmen still studying together years later as they pursued master’s degrees. Other students say they attended CSULB for years getting to know hardly anyone until they took a social dance class. Everyone has their own physical activities that they like to do but if you haven’t tried dancing you may be overlooking the most fun fitness activity of all. It combines music, socialization and exercise all in one plus a little touch of glamour. I say give it a try. One of my students chose to come to dance class rather than using World Series tickets. A student’s spouse liked it so much that he gave up being a couch potato for dancing every night. This is definitely something people can get hooked on. It could result in a lifetime of fun, fitness and friendships.”