How dancing can help keep your brain young

Tap your feet to the beat to stay younger for longer.
(pic copyright: Nataliya Gvozdeva)

Any form of exercise can help stop the brain declining with age. Yet a new study shows that dancing beats other forms of fitness activities for its impact on slowing down the process of brain ageing. Varying the kind of dancing you do – especially if learning new, complicated routines – can enhance that impact.

The research, published in the Frontiers in Human Neuroscience Journal, asked two groups of elderly volunteers (average age 68) to engage in dancing or in endurance and flexibility training over a period of 18 months. The aim was to observe how these activities would affect the area of the brain that declines with age – the hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory, learning and balance, and can be affected by dementia. The endurance training volunteers repeated the same exercises each week, while the dancers had a new routine to learn.

Lead author of the study Dr Kathrin Rehfeld, based at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, said that the dancers were given routines from dance genres such as Jazz, Latin and Line dancing, and they had to remember their routines without being prompted or helped by their teachers. This extra challenge – remembering, not just working out – showed a greater degree of improvement in balance among the dancers than among the volunteers on fitness programme.

The researchers concluded: “Only the dancers achieved a significant increase in the balance composite score. Hence, dancing constitutes a promising candidate in counteracting the age-related decline in physical and mental abilities.” Not to mention the mood-boosting qualities of being swept across a dance floor in tune with your favourite beat.

How creativity today can boost wellbeing tomorrow

Creative pursuits such as knitting can boost your emotional wellbeing. (Copyright: Oleksii Rashevskyi)

Indulge in creative activities today, and you could well feel more joy, enthusiasm and uplift tomorrow. That’s according to research into the relationship between day-to-day creativity and wellbeing by New Zealand’s University of Utago.

Psychology researchers analysed the daily diaries of 658 university students, where they logged their experiences and emotional states over 13 days.

Patterns emerged showing that participants felt more enthusiastic and had higher “flourishing” in the days after they had been creative. Flourishing is a concept that determines overall wellbeing, happiness and potential for growth.

Lead researcher Dr Tamlin Conner said previous research had focused on how emotions can hamper or support creative activity. However, in this new study, rather than positive feelings predicting next-day creative activity, it was actually previous day’s creative activity that predicted the next day’s positive feelings and wellbeing.

Top creative activities for wellbeing include:

  • Songwriting.
  • Creative writing (poetry, short fiction).
  • Knitting and crochet.
  • Making new recipes.
  • Painting, drawing, and sketching.
  • Graphic and digital design.
  • Musical performance.

Dr Conner concluded: “This finding suggests a particular kind of upward spiral for wellbeing and creativity – engaging in creative behaviour leads to increases in wellbeing the next day, and this increased wellbeing is likely to facilitate creative activity on the same day. Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning.”

Time to get those knitting needles out…

How fruit and veg can make you happier

davanti counselling happy fruit

There is a psychological payoff to eating more healthily. (pic credit: freedigitalphotos.net/nixxphotography)

We’ve all heard about the five-a-day mantra for keeping our bodies healthy. Well, now new research claims that eating more fruit and veg is good for your psychological health too.

In a study involving 12,000 people from 2007 to 2013, scientists at the University of Warwick and the University of Queensland, Australia asked participants to keep a food diary. Their psychological wellbeing was measured too.

The researchers discovered that people’s happiness levels increased within two years of eating more fruit and veg (up to eight portions a day). They said this represented “an increase in life satisfaction equivalent to moving from unemployment to employment”.

Happiness increased incrementally the more fruit and vegetables a person consumed. While healthy eating has proven to boost physical health years down the line, the impact on psychological health and happiness could be enjoyed much sooner.

Dr Redzo Mujcic, research fellow at the University of Queensland, added: “Perhaps our results will be more effective than traditional messages in convincing people to have a healthy diet. There is a psychological payoff now from fruit and vegetables – not just a lower health risk decades later.”

How curiosity can be a curse, according to science

davanti counselling pandora's box

Curiosity can open a Pandora’s Box of difficulties. (copyright Christos Georghiou).

The relentless human desire to know – to satisfy curiosity at all costs – can be more of a curse than a blessing, according to scientists. Whether it’s surreptitiously checking your partner’s phone for signs of infidelity, avidly reading celebrity gossip mags, or hunting people down on social media, too much curiosity can be like opening Pandora’s Box: the urge to do it can outweigh any benefits you might get from knowing, and it can seriously affect your happiness and wellbeing.

Researchers from the Booth School of Business, University of Chicago, and the Wisconsin School of Business have discovered The Pandora Effect: The power and peril of curiosity, published in Psychological Science. They explored what they call the ‘perverse’ side of curiosity to show that it can cause more harm than it’s worth.

The scientists carried out four experiments that exposed people to electric shocks with no apparent benefits, to prove a point that people were driven by “humans’ deep-seated desire to resolve uncertainty, regardless of the harm it may bring”. One experiment involved clicking colour-coded pens, some of which had electric shocks and some didn’t. Where there was uncertainty (not clear which colour pens had batteries) people clicked more of the pens.

The researchers said: “The study suggests that humans possess an inherent desire, independent of consequentialist considerations, to resolve uncertainty; when facing something uncertain and feeling curious, they will act to resolve the uncertainty even if they expect negative consequences. Just as curiosity drove Pandora to open the box despite being warned of its pernicious contents, curiosity can lure humans—like you and me—to seek information with predictably ominous consequences.”

Something to bear in mind before you start secretly stalking your ex on social media. Sometimes, for your own happiness, it may be better just not to know.

Related articles:

Why uncertainty creates the worst kind of stress

Biggest source of employee stress is now knowing what bosses want

How free will is linked to a positive sense of self

Authenticity can come from having a sense of agency over our lives. (pic copyright: delcreations)

The extent to which we believe in free will can determine our sense of self – how we feel about ourselves, the world, and our place in it. Diminishing our free will can trigger depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem. That’s according to a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.

Researchers at Texas A&M University worked with two groups of 300 participants, giving them tests to examine the relationship between free will and sense of self, and between free will and authenticity. They discovered that people with low free will showed “greater feelings of self-alienation and lower self-awareness” as well as lower authenticity compared with the group who had higher free will.

“Our findings suggest that part of being who you are is experiencing a sense of agency and feeling like you are in control over the actions and outcomes in your life,” says lead author Elizabeth Seto from the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University. “If people are able to experience these feelings, they can become closer to their true or core self.”

My experience of working with clients in therapy bears out these findings. People can feel depressed, depleted and hopeless when they feel they have no choice over aspects of their lives. This can put them in a victim position from which they feel unable to escape. Things get ‘done’ to them, and they have little sense of any agency over their own lives. The process of being in therapy can help identify options, and instil a belief that they are in charge of their own lives. Sometimes that can start with a very small step, and gradually they can make more decisions in alignment with who they truly are – instead of looking to external factors for encouragement or validation.

I will leave the final word on this to Carl Jung: “Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.”

How forgiveness is the antidote to stress

davanti counselling forgiveness

A forgiving mentality can reduce your stress levels to zero, says study (pic courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net/StuartMiles)

There’s an old adage that says holding onto resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. The refusal to forgive another for the perceived wrongs they’ve done against you may keep you on the moral high ground, but ultimately you could remain stuck, stressed and strung out. Forgiving the other means letting them off, and so you hold on tight to your sense of what’s right and wrong.

Yet not forgiving can lead to a lifetime of stress, which can affect your mental and physical health. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the antidote to stress. That’s according to research published in the Journal of Health Psychology, and reported in Time magazine’s article Forgiving other people is good for your health.

Researchers from Luther College analysed the stress exposure, lifestyle factors, propensity to forgive, and physical and mental factors among 148 people. They concluded that people who are more forgiving are also more able to handle stress, and that “stress degrades and forgiveness protects” health. They added: ” Developing a more forgiving coping style may help minimise stress-related disorders.”

How so? More research may be needed to determine exactly how forgiveness provides a buffer from stress – but there is something healing about letting go of painful and resentful feelings regarding a situation. It’s not about letting the person get away with it. It’s about not letting your feelings consume your life.

Lead researcher Professor Loren Touissant from Luther College said: “More forgiving individuals may have a more adaptive or extensive repertoire of coping strategies that mitigate the negative effects of stress on health… People with higher levels of forgivingness also have a greater tendency to use problem-focused coping and cognitive restructuring, and are less likely to use rumination, emotional expression and wishful thinking.”

In summary, forgiveness means making the decision to let something go instead of torturing yourself by over-thinking it and wishing life could be different.

How creating art can reduce your stress levels

inktuition artCrayons, felt tips, watercolours, acrylic, clay or chalk: whatever material or medium you use, the act of creating a piece of art can help to reduce your stress levels. And that’s whether you’re a gifted artist or not, according to a new study.

Researchers from Drexel University measured the stress hormone (cortisol levels) in 39 study participants aged 18 to 59 to gauge the impact of making art on their stress levels. Basically, the higher the cortisol, the higher the stress in an in individual.

Half of the participants had little experience in creating art, and the activities in the experiment included clay modelling, drawing with marker pens, and making collages. They were given free rein to create anything they wanted.

The results showed that 75% of participants experienced lower cortisol levels after 45 minutes of art – with younger people benefiting most. One participant said that through making art he felt less anxious and more able to put things into perspective.

The researchers said: “While there was some variation in how much cortisol levels lowered, there was no correlation between past art experiences and lower levels.” There was no correlation with the materials used either.

This survey goes some way to proving the theory behind art therapy, or any other expressive therapy, that anyone can benefit therapeutically – irrespective of talent, skill or prior experience.

Time to pick up those pencils…