Dancers: Athletes and Artists
As the IADMS conference approaches in Basel Switzerland in October, I can’t help but to pontificate on the dancer. Dance has always been a part of my fabric. In high school I did hip-hop-house style dancing. In college I took jazz and ballet to improve my tumbling. In medical school I picked up lindy hop swing dancing and performed around the country. Even bodybuilding incorporates choreography to music in a quasi-style of dancing that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Dancing epitomizes the concepts of G.A.I.N. First of all, dancing is incredible exercise. When performing social dancing, as in swing dancing, this can almost be like performing HIIT! 2 minutes of high intensity dancing and 1 to 2 minutes of rest depending on the band, DJ, or availability of partners.
Second, when you are on the dance floor all of your problems disappear. I lose myself in the music, forgetting about all of the stress of the week. It is the ultimate in stress relieving activity. The process of choreographing a routine involves creativity and activates the mind.
Third, as a result of the exercise and stress relief dancing is great for your health and longevity. I have met so many older dancers in my professional dancing and medical careers. They are the healthiest 80 year olds I ever meet. If I am still dancing at 80 it’ll probably be because I was dancing at 50, 60, and 70.
Finally, dancing encourages good behavior in the kitchen or the club. If you are busy dancing you, you are too busy to sit and eat. Also, once you eat poorly and get out of shape dancing isn’t so easy to dance. Besides, when social dancing, drinking alcohol only leads to problems on the dance floor.
Dancing is a very athletic endeavor. When it comes to dance, performance nutrition is often neglected for a number of reasons. For one, the dancer may not be educated like the athlete about the importance of sports nutrition in improving performance and recovery. Two, the dancer may feel pressured not to eat certain foods for fear of gaining weight. It is not uncommon in the world of professional dance for directors to encourage a slightly unhealthy body style that is thinner than it is lean. Third, many dancers don’t realize just how deficient in nutrients they are; with intense training comes increased need for nutrients.
Female dance students and professional ballerinas often consume below 70% of their needed calories. This chronic deficit can lead to the “Athlete Triad”.
The female athlete triad typically consists of disordered eating, irregular menses, and decreased bone density. In reality both men and women can experience the “athlete triad” which correlates with low nutrient availability, endocrine dysfunction, and decreased lean body mass.
Low nutrient availability can be due to a failure to eat enough calories, food group restrictions like vegan diets and fat restriction, and lack of needed essential nutrients like amino acids, fats, or vitamins compared to training volume. The endocrine dysfunction is due to excessive stress and lack of nutrients. Excess physical and mental stress from overtraining leads to elevations in muscle and bone destroying cortisol. Furthermore, overtraining leads to a deficiency of growth hormone producing deep sleep. Without nutrients and growth hormone, our muscle and bone density will disappear.
As great as dance is for us, there is always such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. We must treat dance as we do training for sports. Periodization of training intensities and understanding the need for rest and recovery is critical to staying healthy as a dancer. Listening to our muscle soreness and knowing when to participate in relative-rest is critical to avoiding injury. That recovery process understands the importance of sports nutrition and supplementation.
As I spoke of in my last segment, the dairy proteins, particularly whey protein, have unique abilities to improve our recovery from training. The branched-chain amino acid leucine boosts muscle protein synthesis. The break-down product of leucine metabolism, HMB, has the unique ability to limit muscle protein breakdown in times of energy deficit. The calcium and vitamin D in dairy are not only critical to bone density, but they are also important for muscle function. Vitamin D actually sensitizes muscle cells to leucine enhancing leucine’s ability to turn on muscle protein synthesis. A deficiency of leucine (lack of protein) or vitamin D deficiency (way too common in dancers that I see) will lead to loss of lean body mass and strength.
Dancers need to be strong, powerful, and durable. Without the right modifications to training schedules and diet the professional dancer will have a shorter career. In future blogs we will discuss more of the unique needs of dancers both physically and mentally.