From the American Physiological Society:
The grace of a ballet dancer is not just because the dancer is constantly practicing to move with ease. New research published in the Journal of Neurophysiology reports that professional ballet dancers’ years of physical training have allowed their nervous systems to coordinate their muscles as they move more precisely than people with no dance training.
The nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves throughout the body. It allows body systems to communicate and coordinate with each other, such as the brain controlling the movement of leg muscles.
Rather than controlling muscles individually, the nervous system initiates movement by activating muscles in groups. Muscle groups are called “motor modules” and the nervous system combines different motor modules to perform a wide range of movements.
In this study, a research team from Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology examined whether long-term training to improve physical coordination, such as dance training, affects how motor modules are recruited when moving.
“This study helps us understand how long-term training in an activity such as dancing affects the way we perform daily tasks,” says study author Lena Ting, PhD. “We found that years of ballet training alters how the nervous system coordinates muscles for gait and balance behaviors in general. This may also have implications for how rehabilitation training helps people with reduced mobility. Ting is a professor in the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory and the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.
The researchers compared the movements of professional ballet dancers with 10 or more years of ballet training to individuals with no dance or gymnastics training. Gait and muscle activity in the legs and torso were tracked as the subjects walked on the floor, a wide beam, and a difficult narrow beam.
Ballet dancers and untrained people had similar gait patterns when crossing the floor or beam. However, when crossing the narrow beam, the ballet dancers showed better balance as they walked further. The ballet dancers recruited more motor modules and did so more consistently than the untrained individuals, indicating that the ballet dancers were using their muscles more effectively and efficiently, the researchers said. Ballet dancers also used the same motor modules more when walking on a floor than when crossing the beam compared to untrained individuals, showing that training can affect control of daily movements.
According to the researchers, the results show that years of ballet training changed the way the nervous system coordinated muscles for walking and balance behaviors.
The article “Long-term training alters the modular structure and organization of gait balance control” is previewed in the Journal of Neurophysiology.