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‘How dancing boosts my health’

JoWeekOne1In this week’s Strictly Dance Diaries, Jo Willacy talks about the great benefits of dancing, not only to your health and fitness, but to your mental wellbeing too. She remembers her sister Kate, also a CF sufferer, who passed away aged 28. 


Mark Benton and partner Iveta Lukosiute
Mark Benton and partner Iveta Lukosiute

When the celebs sign up to Strictly, they must all have their own reasons for doing so. The cynics amongst you would say it’s to revive a flailing career or earn hard cash; the ‘dance romantics’ (that’s me) would claim they adore the show and want to learn to dance. Over the years, several celebs have admitted taking part to help them improve their fitness and lose weight. Waterloo Road star, Mark Benton, openly admitted to this from the very start of the current series.

Last year, actress Lisa Riley dropped three dress sizes during her energetic time on the show (lifting Mr Muscles Robin Windsor must have burned a few calories in itself) and even the already svelte Kimberley Walsh claimed to lose 7cms from her hips.

Ann Widdecombe, however, famously reported that she ‘didn’t lose an inch, not a pound’ during her time on the show, claiming her partner, Anton du Beke, ‘loved stopping for lunch – he loved the Victoria Sponge in the café.’ Last week’s evictee, Vanessa Feltz, (don’t get me started on why I think the judges made the wrong choice) also claims to have put on weight rather than lose it. Her hectic work schedule, which involves waking up at 3am to start her Radio 2 show, combined with rehearsals, was leaving her ‘cream crackered’ and she apparently found ‘comfort in the arms of the blancmange’ (personally, I’d have gone for the arms of James Jordan, but each to their own).

Before I began dancing, I’d tried other forms of exercise. For me, exercise wasn’t so much for weight loss (most adults with CF struggle to maintain a healthy weight due to malabsorption) but simply an attempt at keeping my lung function stable.

Yoga, lots of deep breathing, excellent for my rubbish lungs I’d thought. But it felt like a busman’s holiday. Way too similar to all the breathing exercises I have to perform for my chest physiotherapy. I wanted escapism from CF, not a reminder of what I have to do, day in, day out.

Swimming, with Gav. But, only able to manage one length before my puff let me down, I’d have to stand, shivering and miserable, at each end of the pool while I got my breath back. It simply highlighted how little my lungs would let me do.

We gave cycling a go, too, but it was unsatisfactory for us both – me being aware that my pace was holding Gav back; him slowing down to stay with me but feeling like he wasn’t getting a decent workout.

Forty five minutes of dancing, once a week, might not be the best exercise out there, but two things are true: it’s far better than doing nothing and it boosts my mental health as well as my physical fitness.

After last year’s show, Lisa Riley revealed her mum had died from breast cancer a month before the show started but that she’d found dancing a great way to help her grieve. I can well imagine Robin as a wonderful unofficial bereavement counsellor.

Diana Melly article Blog 4

Now, stay with me here… Last week, my father in law delivered his weekly pile of torn out newspaper articles he thinks we’ll find interesting (his take on recycling). I use the word ‘we’ loosely here, because 99.9 per cent of them are about sport or beer. Occasionally, the odd one of interest slips in for me and spotting the headline ‘Shall we dance?’, I cast an interested eye over a cutting from The Oldie.

‘The therapeutic effects of tea and tango’ it read.The piece ended with a paragraph that resonated strongly with me. ‘It’s six years since George died, and I thought that my family, friends and dogs were all I needed to feel sane and whole. I now realise that music and dance help too.’ Wondering who ‘George’ was, I noticed the writer was Diana Melly, wife of jazz singer George. Readers of my first blog may remember my dad came dressed as George to Gav’s 40th birthday fancy dress party.

Jo with Dad at Gav's 40th fancy dress

And the reason this resonated? Because my dad took up ballroom dancing lessons (long before I did) to, amongst other reasons, relieve stress when his eldest daughter, my sister, Kate, was dying. Kate, like me, had CF. She died, aged 28, while waiting for a heart and lung transplant (Find out more about transplants on the Organ Donation website).

Kate funeral service picA very dear friend (who ironically now has a six year old daughter with CF) sent me some words that we used in Kate’s order of service. One line read: ‘Some people move our souls to dance.’ How true. We celebrated Kate’s life by hosting a dance night at the splendidly opulent Rivoli ballroom  in Brockley, south east London and, she herself had chosen ‘Dancing Queen’ to be played at her funeral. If I’d been a dancer then, I’d have done everything within my powers to send her off with a good cha cha cha.


Ki armband pic 3 Probably the clearest photoSpeaking of which, and getting right back to where this week’s ramblings began – dancing for fitness – last week I donned a Ki Armband body monitor in our dance class  so I could see just how many calories I burn when dancing. Rumba, cha cha and jive were the order of last week’s lesson and the clever device tells me I worked off 124 calories. That was in a stop-start 45-minute lesson, with breaks while we watch Maxine show us the steps and, let’s not pretend otherwise, while we go wrong! As Gav very helpfully pointed out, 124 calories is about two biscuits. But it’s a start. Now, pass me the Viennese Whirls…Find out more about the Ki Armband

For anyone still guessing, the Strictly dress I wore (see last week’s blog) had previously been modelled by Jerry Hall, who lasted just three weeks in last year’s series.

Jo DSI London 1

STRICTLY Dance Diaries Week 3

STRICTLY Dance Diaries Week 2

STRICTLY Dance Diaries Week 1


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