Why Salsa Dancing is the Greatest Fat-Burning Exercise EVER!!!

8 Apr

I hate cardio!

Seriously! I can think of nothing worse than spending 30 minutes or more jogging or doing lengths in a swimming pool. The monotony is mind-numbing. In fact, the only time I ever mildly enjoy jogging is when the weather’s good and I can enjoy the sun on my skin and the view of the mountains from my route… but I live in Ireland where “good weather” is one of those legends we hear of as children but only really get to experience a handful of days out of the year… stupid North Atlantic weather.

Don’t even get me started on treadmills. How anyone can spend more than 5 minutes running in the same place, breathing the same stale air and looking at the same gym scenery is utterly beyond me. People who can spend 30 minutes on a treadmill have truly mastered the art of mentally shutting down and zoning-out. Maybe they’ve learned to meditate while jogging. Or maybe they’re just dead inside!

So why bother?
Well, the cold hard truth is that people do cardio because no one want’s to be fat. Extended periods of moderate intensity exercise (read “cardio”) such as jogging, swimming, biking etc. are good ways to burn body fat. All of these are classified as “aerobic” exercises which means they use oxygen to produce energy. Your bodies preferential fuel source for aerobic exercise is fat as opposed to to anaerobic exercises (such as sprinting or heavy weight lifting) which use carbohydrates as their energy source.

I’m certainly not saying aerobic exercise is better than anaerobic (my own training routine would contradict that), I’m just saying that aerobic exercise has a role to play in getting us ready for beach season.

Bikini season is coming... I've completely lost my train of thought

Bikini season is coming… I’ve completely lost my train of thought!

So what’s wrong with cardio?
Simple answer: IT’S BORING!!!
I actually have to psyche myself up to go for a jog and I know I’m not the only one. As soon as I step on the pavement, all I can think of is “when is this going to be over”. I feel the same way swimming laps in a pool. I’m just counting down the minutes until I can stop. That’s not a good way to encourage physical activity.

Geeky answer: It produces cortisol
Cortisol is a hormone that your body produces in times of stress. Stress can be induced by lots of factors (as we all know) but one of them is exercise, particularly sustained moderate/high intensity cardio.

Now, cortisol is not all bad, it actually induces the beneficial effects of exercise through its catabolic (break down) effects. Basically it signals your body that it needs to get stronger by breaking down tissue. However if cortisol levels remain high your body gets stuck in a catabolic state and can’t get into the anabolic (build up) state that it needs to improve conditioning. Basically your body is stuck breaking down muscle tissue as opposed to building it up. This can result in a whole host of problems such as reduced muscle tone, higher susceptibility to infection, poor sleep and increased abdominal fat (everyone’s favorite type of fat 😉  ).

Excessive cardio (e.g. long distance running) can often result in the body type seen on the right. Probably not the look most people are going for.

Excessive cardio (e.g. long distance running) can often result in the body type seen on the right. Probably not the look most people are going for.

This is a perfect example of too much of a good thing. Excessive moderate/high intensity cardio makes you produce too much cortisol.

Do what you love
The best way to exercise, in my opinion, is to do something you love.

When you enjoy something, you stick with it and when it comes to getting the benefits of exercise, consistency is key.

That’s why it’s better to do something that you enjoy doing for the sake of doing it, rather than just to get exercise. Be it soccer, tennis, basketball or no-holds-barred hopscotch, finding an activity you enjoy is important.

In my final year in Japan I had no trouble maintaining low body fat because I was surfing regularly (I lived next to the sea and had my own car to take my board around). I didn’t go surfing because I wanted to get exercise, I went because I loved catching waves (even though I sucked). I did it regularly and it kept me lean.

Another advantage of doing an activity that you love is that it helps to combat stress which actively reduces cortisol and helps to prevent its negative effects.

Salsa Caliente
I have noticed that I have no trouble staying lean if I’m social dancing around 3 nights a week.

When I lived in Dublin a few years ago, I took a month off form social dancing while I was doing a CELTA course (there was hefty workload in the evenings). Apart from the lack of dancing, my diet and my weight training (which I did in the mornings) didn’t change. I did, however, notice that I was gaining weight. Once I started dancing again, the weight just melted off.

Now, salsa dancing isn’t overly intense. Have a look at the “estimated” calories burned (for someone weighing 70kg) for 30 minutes of the following activities*:

  • Salsa: 214 cals**
  • Biking: 245 cals
  • Jogging: 210 cals
  • Swimming: 315 cals
  • Vigorous Sex: 120 cals (I think they might be doing it wrong)

*Source: http://www.calorielab.com
**Source: SalsaPhD

Now, except for the value for Salsa dancing, I’m very skeptical about the veracity of the remaining values (especially the last one) but lets assume they’re relatively accurate.

Over 30 minutes, salsa appears to have a caloric expenditure similar to biking and jogging. Fair enough, that seems about right. However, I’ve never known someone to go social dancing for just 30 minutes.

The great thing about salsa is that it’s so addictive. When I go social dancing, I can be out dancing for one, two, three or more hours. And I’m enjoying every second of it (as opposed to jogging where I’m just wishing for it to end). So when you look at it like that, dancing for two (very enjoyable) hours could burn ~860 calories as opposed to 210 calories from a torturous half hour of jogging (the value for salsa will obviously be lower due to breaks taken on a night out dancing).

Anyone who has had a good night of salsa dancing also knows how out of breath and sweaty one gets by the end of the night.

Out of Breath and Sweaty?
Sounds like cardio to me. And that’s just what it is. A night of salsa dancing is an extended period of moderate intensity aerobic exercise.

Salsa is one of the best low intensity exercises you can do.

Salsa is one of the best low intensity exercises you can do.

It beats the hell out of jogging as it’s a hell of a lot more fun, it’s easier on the joints, it helps to reduce stress (and associated cortisol levels) and it’s a social activity you can enjoy with friends. You can check out a whole load of other reasons to dance salsa here. Think about it though: Which would you prefer, a half hour of running or 2 hours of salsa dancing?

Why a salsa class won’t help you
Now, after saying all that, if you think going to an hour-long salsa class three times a week is going to give you abs you could grate carrots on, you are sadly mistaken.

Most salsa classes are focused on teaching you new techniques and thus the intensity is far too low. In all honesty, how many times have you been sweaty and out of breath after a salsa class?

The only exception would be Zumba but that’s more aerobics than dancing (no disrespect to zumba, I’m just calling it like I see it).

A few hours of hot and sweaty social dancing, two or three times a week is really one of the best “no will power needed” fat-burning routines you could ever try.

You enjoy it = You do it regularly = You get results

The Secret Ingredient
Let’s not forget the most important factor when it comes to dropping body fat:

“Abs are made in the kitchen”

You can do all the exercise you want but if you’re not eating well, the only time you’re going to see abs is watching Ryan Reynolds movies (damn that guy looks good).

I hate Ryan Reynolds for looking so good!

I hate Ryan Reynolds for looking so good!

Don’t let your good efforts on the dance floor go to waste, make an effort with your food and you’ll be able to put Mr. Reynolds to shame. If you need some tips on tweaking your diet you can check out these articles here and here.

So get up and shake that booty
I don’t have the option to go dancing right now (here in the middle of the mountains) so I have to settle for jogging as my regular cardio (and it is a very distant runner up to salsa). So to those of you who can, get up, get moving and a dance a few songs for me.

Keep dancing folks.

EDIT: After I initially published this article I was contacted by Pablo Alberto Domene, a PhD student at Kingston University who is studying the the physical and psychological benefits of Latin dance. He very kindly corrected the caloric expenditure values I had originally used for salsa (which were too low) based on his own research. You can read up on Pablo’s work on his excellent blog: SalsaPhD
Thanks for your help Pablo and I wish you continued success in your studies.

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Have you been working-out lately? Because you look spectacular 🙂 If you liked this article go ahead and share it with your friends via the Facebook or Twitter buttons below and if you use Stumbleupon please give it a “Thumbs Up”. I’d really appreciate it 😉

 

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5 Responses to “Why Salsa Dancing is the Greatest Fat-Burning Exercise EVER!!!”

  1. Brendan Murphy April 8, 2014 at 8:22 pm #

    One comment on the intensity of a class rather than social dancing – for Cuban style dancers, learning through Rueda – once at least an Improvers level is reached – is close to as intense as social dancing, due to the practice during continuous dancing – with the breaks to show the new move being similar to the breaks one might take between dances. In fact, in a good class, its likely to reach higher levels of intensity but just with a few more breaks than social dancing (well, depending how busy the club is).

    • The Dancing Irishman April 9, 2014 at 8:00 am #

      Agreed, there’s going to be a huge amount of variation between salsa styles, teachers and individuals. It makes generalization hard.

  2. gschrubbe April 23, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    Great post! I totally agree with you that Salsa is the best exercise 😀 I always tell people I HATE working out, but I love dancing, and when I’m on my grind of social dancing 3-4 nights a week (and you know I go hard when I do) I definitely feel leaner and meaner. I bought a pedometer and tracked my “miles dancing” one time, and over the course of a Thursday-Sunday, danced 8 miles. I’ll take that over running any day.

    • The Dancing Irishman April 25, 2014 at 8:22 am #

      You danced 8 miles eh? I have suddenly got a desire to buy myself a pedometer. This could start a new trend Georgia. People running around asking each other, “so how many miles have you danced tonight?”
      We should make it a competition 😀

      • gschrubbe April 25, 2014 at 10:18 am #

        RIGHT? I’m envisioning some kind of cheesy 80s workout video commercial to promote this idea…

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