Newswise — Can elderly Latinos who have limited mobility and face elevated risks of disability dance their way to better health? A University of Illinois at Chicago researcher wants to find out.

David Xavier Marquez, assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition, recruited 13 Latinos, all 55 or older and who have done little or no exercise the past year, into a 12-week dance class. They are learning merengue, cha cha cha, bachata and salsa. Marquez hopes they will adopt this enjoyable physical activity, improving their health along the way.

"It's a culturally appropriate physical activity for Latinos," Marquez said. "Many grew up dancing at family gatherings and other celebrations. But many don't have the opportunity to do it now."

Marquez is nearing the end of a pilot study involving qualified volunteers living in the South Chicago/East Side/Hegewisch/South Deering communities where about 35 percent of the older population is Latino, and walking the neighborhood for exercise can be risky or treacherous, especially in wintry conditions.

While Marquez attracted about 45 potential participants, his pilot study is limited to people who are relatively inactive and have limited mobility. The 13 who qualified are all women, except for one man.

Julia Lopez, a social service coordinator with South Chicago-based Villa Guadalupe Social Services, Inc., recruited participants with the help of other community organizations. Miguel Mendez, president and CEO of Humboldt Park-based Dance Academy of Salsa, who has more than 18 years of teaching experience, suggested dances to use for the program, done twice weekly in one-hour sessions. All dance sessions take place at Villa Guadalupe Social Services.

Marquez and Mendez created a 45-page manual showing all steps for each of the four dances taught. The program is called BAILAMOS -- Spanish for "we dance," but also an acronym for "Balance and Activity in Latinos, Addressing Mobility in Older adultS."

Participants were tested for cognitive ability, balance, strength, gait speed, endurance, and physical activity levels. While final data have yet to be compiled and analyzed, Marquez says he is impressed by anecdotal findings.

"Most probably don't care if their fitness level changes, but hope it helps in their daily activities," he said. "They don't get tired as quickly, they do more and feel better -- physically and psychologically. Some say they feel better about themselves, and that they can now accomplish more."

Marquez will debrief the participants and their instructor when the pilot study ends to learn what improvements can go into a larger, more comprehensive study he hopes to get funding to conduct.

While Marquez's study focuses on the fast-growing elderly Latino population of urban Chicago, he thinks using dance as an exercise intervention among other elderly populations, regardless of ethnicity or region, may prove to be a way to better health. He also hopes eventually to study if dance can help prevent diabetes, obesity and reduce the risk for heart disease.

"Dance works all over for health. There's nothing specific to the biology or physiology of Latinos that would make it only work for them."

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