As Earth, Wind & Fire once said: Let's groove!
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woman dancing on designed background
Credit: Getty Images / simonkr

Whether you prefer to do the hustle, the "Cupid Shuffle" or the twist, getting down on the dance floor (or in your kitchen) can actually be a boon for your health. Dancing is a form of cardio, making it a pretty great way to stay active while having fun—just ask Debbie Allen—and it can even help you lose weight. Plus, new research says that putting on your boogie shoes can also support your cognitive health.

A new study in Scientific Reports found that listening to music that makes you want to dance can support executive function—your most basic mental processes—and associated brain activity. There's just one caveat: the music in question must be music that you know and enjoy, whether it's funk, disco, rock or pop. (If you want a little inspiration, you could always look to Michelle Obama or Reese Witherspoon for a workout playlist that will make you want to put your body in it.)

Researchers focused on "music that elicits a sensation of groove," which the study describes as songs that make you "want to move to the music." That could be different for everyone, depending on your taste, but generally music with uncomplicated rhythm and low-frequency components, like a strong bassline, are more likely to evoke a groove. The researchers pointed out that previous studies in 2013 and 2014 suggested that listening to such rhythmic music can help improve the physical abilities of those with Parkinson's disease.

To test the effect of groove music on cognition, the researchers gathered a group of 51 young adults—their average age was around 20—and measured the activity in their brains' dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (l-DLPFC), which is associated with executive function. Researchers measured the brain activity in participants while they listened to three minutes of groove music or three minutes of a white noise metronome. Participants also took the Stroop test, a color and word matching game, after listening to the stimulus.

"The results were surprising," said lead author Hideaki Soya, Ph.D., in a media release. "We found that groove rhythm enhanced executive function and activity in the l-DLPFC only in participants who reported that the music elicited a strong groove sensation and the sensation of being clear-headed."

The researchers noted that this study also adds to the evidence that listening to a favorite song can be great for your noggin, as those who felt a groove and were already familiar with the song experienced the most positive effect on brain activity and performance on the Stroop test. Meanwhile, those who didn't feel a groove and were unfamiliar with the song experienced no effect (or even a negative effect) on their brain activity and test performance.

"Our findings indicate that individual differences in psychological responses to groove music modulate the corresponding effects on executive function," Soya said. "As such, the effects of groove rhythm on human cognitive performance may be influenced by familiarity or beat processing ability."

So, if you already know that you love to get dancin', cranking up your favorite playlist and moving your feet could do more than put a smile on your face. Just remember that this study is somewhat limited—the researchers noted that your personal taste, ability to process beats and cultural background could shape your response to the groove. We'll need further research to confirm the study's findings, though it does raise the potential that adding some music to your day could enhance cognitive performance much like exercise does.

Another sure-fire way to support a healthy mind is by regularly working in foods that support your brain, like leafy greens, salmon and walnuts (for more on this, check out our explainer of the MIND diet, a diet that combines aspects of the DASH and Mediterranean diets to help protect your brain as you age).

The Bottom Line

New research in Scientific Reports has good news for all the dancing queens out there: listening to music that makes you want to dance may improve your cognitive abilities. A small study of 51 people in Japan found that folks who listened to "groove music"—that is, music with a danceable beat—were likely to perform better on an executive function test than those who simply listened to a metronome without music, especially if they already knew the song. More research needs to be done to confirm these findings, but putting on a favorite song and dancing around the kitchen is never a bad idea—especially since aerobic exercise can help reduce your dementia risk.