Keep moving, stay active, and you’ll stay healthy. There is a global epidemic of heart disease, and exercise has been long advocated as both a preventative and curative. Getting older people to stick to such exercise programs has been proven quite hard.

At the American Heart Association meeting (November 2006), Italian researchers reported an effective exercise for cardiac rehabilitation patients to heal their damaged hearts: dancing, more specifically, waltzing. The researchers assigned patients to a supervised exercise training program of cycling and treadmill work three times a week for eight weeks. Another group was assigned to dance classes in the hospital gym for 21 minutes, three times a week, for eight weeks. A third group didn’t exercise at all.

It turned out that the dancers had the best cardiopulmonary fitness ratings after the study period. Heart imaging showed the dancers’ arteries were better able to dilate and expand in response to exercise. You know that part of the superior performance of the dancers had to be more than the aerobic exercise; it was also about holding somebody close. Staying connected to someone with your whole being dilates and expands your body and your mind.

I first heard about this power in the mid-sixties when an old Pueblo Indian medicine man said to me, “If you can’t dance, you can’t heal.” I heard about it again 20 years later when I met an elderly lady in a New York museum who told me the whole secret of life was to “keep on moving.” I wrote about this encounter in my book, The Theft of the Spirit, which I’ll briefly summarize. A tiny, well-dressed white-haired woman stopped me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to ask me what time it was. I looked at my watch and said it was two o’clock. She told me that she had an appointment, but her friends were not yet here and, without pause, continued talking.

She told me she was never late for appointments; she had once been a docent at the Bronx Botanical Gardens, and on and on. I wanted to leave, but I could hear my mother’s voice whispering in my ear, “What’s the big deal so you listen for a few more minutes; she’s an old lady maybe she doesn’t have anybody else to talk to.” I’m daydreaming, when I hear her say, “That’s the secret of life.” Coming back into the moment, I asked, “What’s the secret of life?” “I said sneakers are the secret of life,” she told me. She pointed down at her feet and I saw she was wearing sneakers. “What do you mean?” I asked. Pearl said “Sneakers are the secret of life because they are only comfortable when you’re moving.”

Preventative medicine for the ages . . . don’t stop dancing till you stop breathing.