Study is nation's first to examine prevalence of dance among youth

October 26, 2011

ONeil Dr. Jennifer O'Neill's research finds that dancing comprises a large portion of physical activity among youth.

Turn up the music or plug in the ear phones: Dance may be one of the best ways to get America's youth moving.

In the nation's first study to examine the prevalence of dance among a large number of young people, researchers at the Arnold School of Public Health found that a surprising number of girls – and even boys -- are dancing. The study's results, published in the Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, reveal that about 35 percent of girls and 8.4 percent of boys report dancing as part of their regular physical activity. Overall, the prevalence of dance participation among U.S. adolescents was nearly 21 percent.

Knowing that young people are dancing is good news to researchers who say that girls have lower physical activity levels than boys, especially as they get older, and that many adolescent girls fall short of the physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily, said Dr. Jennifer O'Neill, the study's lead author and a post-doctoral fellow in the Arnold School's department of exercise science.

"This study provides compelling evidence that dance is not only a favored type of physical activity, but it also has the potential to play a critical role in increasing youth physical activity," said O'Neill. "Dancing also has great health benefits, too, including increased cardiorespiratory fitness, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and bone mineral density."

The study sample included 3,598 youth, age 12 – 19, from the 2003 – 06 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Youth were asked to report the frequency and duration of physical activities performed in the past month.

Other findings of the study:

  • Among the Top 10 activities of youth, dancing was third among girls – just after running and walking.
  • Among girls, dance provided a higher percentage of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity than running and basketball and a similar amount to that of walking.
  • The prevalence of dance was higher among African American and Hispanic girls (more than 39 percent) than white girls (32.6 percent). Twice as many African-American and Hispanic males reported dancing than white males.
  • The prevalence of dance participation was higher among boys in the two lower family-income groups (less than $20,000 annually and less than $45,000) than boys in the highest income group.
  • Among youth who reported dancing as part of their physical activity, dance contributed nearly 36 percent of their moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.

Researchers did not study where students were dancing – at home or in unstructured settings – or the impact of reality television shows have on encouraging dance, said O'Neill, whose Arnold School colleagues Dr. Russ Pate and Dr. Angela Liese were co-authors of the study.

O'Neill was the lead author on a recent report on the contribution of dance on physical activity levels among girls. The findings, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, found that dance classes contributed more than 28 percent to girls' moderate-to-vigorous physical activity levels.

"This was the first study to describe the physical activity levels of girls who were enrolled in structured dance classes using an objective measure of physical activity," said O'Neill, the study's lead author. "Structured physical activity programs are well positioned to promote activity among youth. However, little is known about these programs, particularly dance classes."

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