This heart-pumping workout brings the fun. Here's what to know about cardio dance, its benefits, and more.
Whether you're having a solo dance party in your bedroom after a long day at work or you're going all out on the dance floor at your best friend's wedding, chances are you'll feel sore the next day (even if you didn't think you were going that hard in the moment!). Yep, dance cardio is a legit way to break a sweat and reap all the awesome benefits of physical movement — and it's deceptively challenging as a workout.
ICYDK, dance cardio is "a fun, heart-pumping dance-based workout full of high-energy, nonstop movement to the rhythms of your favorite beats," explains Karma Stylz, a fitness and dance instructor on the FitXR app. "It offers something for everyone." And it turns out dance cardio has both physical and mental health perks, says Karissa Bollinger, a dance fitness instructor and American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)–certified exercise physiologist.
There are a number of popular dance cardio programs — such as Zumba, 305 Fitness, DanceBody, and AKT — available online and in fitness studios across the country. So no matter where you live, you can enjoy shimmying, booty-shaking, and breaking a serious sweat to today's biggest hits.
Keep reading for a breakdown of what dance cardio class is, the biggest benefits you'll score while sweating it out to your favorite tunes, and what to expect in your first class.
What Is Dance Cardio?
Simply put, "dance cardio is a cardiovascular workout utilizing high energy dance-based movements set to music," says Alissa Tucker, a master trainer for AKT, a dance cardio workout available through the fitness platform Xponential+.
A dance cardio class is similar to an aerobics class and typically lasts 45 minutes to an hour, adds Sarina Jain, a Masala Bhangra instructor at the Ailey Extension in New York City and an Athletics and Fitness Association of America–certified group fitness instructor.
"It incorporates a warm-up to get your body moving, followed by some stretching, then the dance portion of the class — going all out into a jam and giving your utmost energy — and then cooling down after all that hard work," says Jain. There may also be a short section of core targeting work too, depending on the class.
Some dance cardio workouts, such as AKT, are choreography-based, where you learn a dance routine throughout class, says Tucker. Others involve you simply following along to the instructor's steps during each song played in class, she says.
Not up for heading to the gym? Dance cardio is a perfect at-home workout because you don't need any equipment, says Tucker. Plus, "if you're new to dance cardio, trying it at home first can give you some time to practice without the pressure of keeping up with a class," she adds.
The Benefits of Dance Cardio
Dance cardio has a host of research-backed health benefits. Here are the top reasons to add dance cardio to your fitness routine.
Promote Heart Health
"Dance cardio is a cardiovascular workout that helps to promote heart health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease, lung disease, and diabetes," says Tucker. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine even found that moderate-intensity dancing was associated with a lowered risk of cardiovascular disease mortality. "The association between dance and cardiovascular disease mortality may be explained by high-intensity bouts during dancing, lifelong adherence, or psychosocial benefits," note the study authors.
You can also expect to see tried-and-true cardio exercises (such as jumping jacks, squats, and side shuffles) disguised as dance moves in a dance cardio class, notes Tucker. "We love to incorporate a booty pop or a shimmy," she says of the AKT method. These classic cardio exercises can help stimulate and strengthen your heart and lungs, as Shape previously reported.
And watch out for the "sneaky" squat, as Bollinger describes her favorite move. "I call it that because when we as fitness professionals create dance fitness choreography, we are always trying to find ways to sneak in some moves that will really get your heart rate up to hone in on the cardiovascular component of the class," she says. (FYI, squats are also one of the best exercises to strengthen your butt, according to research from the American Council on Exercise.)
Improve Balance and Coordination
Research suggests dancing can help improve your balance and coordination, particularly as you age. In one study, older women who participated in dance-based aerobic exercise regularly showed better balance and coordination, as well as a decreased risk of falling. The researchers attribute these improvements in balance and coordination to the repetition of various stepping movements during the main part of the workout.
Increase Agility and Flexibility
In addition to improving balance and coordination, dance cardio can also increase your agility (ability to move) and flexibility, says Stylz. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at the effects of pre-season dance training on top cross-country skiers. The result? The skiers enjoyed an improved range of hip motion, joint mobility, and flexibility of the spine. This led to a reduction in ski-related back pain. The study authors believe these results were due to the exercises included in the dance training program, which were aimed at improving posture, flexibility, and coordination.
Help With Memory Recall
Dance cardio classes that teach choreography require some memory recall, notes Tucker. "Your mind is staying engaged in the workout by trying to pick up the choreography," she says.
In fact, studies show dancing can help prevent cognitive decline by aiding in the development of new neural pathways in the brain. "That's a fancy way of saying that you will likely be trying new movements that you haven't done before, which will make the brain work too," explains Bollinger. This, in turn, can help reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia, according to research.
In general, physical activity has been linked to lower levels of stress and anxiety. That's because exercise stimulates the production of feel-good hormones, such as endorphins, which boost your mood, as Shape previously reported. "The laughs and smiles you'll experience during a fun-filled dance cardio class are an instant mood-booster," says Bollinger. When it comes to dance cardio specifically, a recent study found that people who regularly danced exhibited more mindfulness and reported overall higher psychological well-being than those who didn't dance.
The Best Dance Cardio Workouts
If you're just getting started with dance cardio, Stylz suggests choosing a short and simple workout — something that feels good to your mind and body. "Then build and increase time and intensity as the good vibes inspire you to keep moving," says Stylz.
On the Xponential+ platform, for example, they have 20-minute classes all the way up to 60-minute classes. "Our trainers offer low-impact modifications and guide you through the entire class with plenty of repetition so you can learn the steps," says Tucker. She recommends starting with one of the 20-minute classes and doing the same class a few times until you feel like you've got it down. Then, move on to another class.
"Just like any new skill, the more you do it, the better you'll get and the quicker you'll be able to pick up the choreography," says Tucker.
It's important to note that each particular dance cardio method really has its own style and flavor, says Bollinger, so no two methods will be the same. That means it may take time to find one that suits you best.
In Jain's class, for example, she takes students through a journey in Masala Bhangra, an Indian cardio fitness program where you'll dance like you're in a Bollywood movie. "By the end of the class, you will feel like you want to go to an Indian wedding," she says.
Zumba, meanwhile, is a Latin-inspired dance cardio workout that involves choreographed movements — and AKT's dance cardio classes combine dance cardio with full body strength and dynamic flexibility intervals.
Ready to break a sweat, become more flexible, and boost your memory? Find your preferred dance cardio style from the classes below. No matter which workout you put to the test, expect to leave class sweaty and smiley.