How Do Nutrition & Sleep Affect Your Body & Dance?

Dancers work under pressure.

Dancers work under pressure.

Young dancers can be overwhelmed by the demands of their art. Not only is the work physically taxing, but dancers live with pressure to be thin, to add more jobs into a crowded schedule and to compete with other dancers. Performances run late and rehearsals begin early. It's easy to overlook the basic determinants of health, forgetting to sleep and skipping meals. But failing to prioritize your body's needs can end your career. Good nutrition and adequate sleep are essential to maintain energy, memory, strength and immunity.

Energy

Energy is key to a successful dance career. Long days of rehearsal and long nights of performance mark the life of a professional dancer. For others, dance rehearsals and performances are a second job on top of their daytime responsibilities. Adequate nutrition and good sleep are essential to maintaining these demanding schedules. In the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science fact sheet "Fueling the Dancer," Priscilla Clarkson, Ph.D., recommends consuming 45 to 55 calories per kilogram of body weight for dancers with a heavy training schedule. The hardest struggle may be finding the time to eat and sleep. One way to fuel yourself in the midst of a busy schedule is to divide your calories into many small meals, taken throughout the day between events.

Memory

The dancer's job is not just physical. If you are performing choreographed material, you must memorize steps, sequences and rhythms. Even improvisation requires a good knowledge of the music or music style that you will be using. A performer must also keep track of other practical matters, such as which rehearsal will be held on Thursday night and where to go for the audition on Friday morning. When sleep is missed, memory fails. Both light sleep and deep REM sleep are needed for efficient memory and learning. Six to eight hours of sleep are ideal for most adults. If that is not possible every night, try to sleep well at least once every few days. Taking a day off from training may be necessary to restore balance to your life and routine. Make time for sleep, and your memory will thank you.

Strength

Dancers must be strong. Food fuels the body and builds muscle. The dancer's diet must include adequate calories and enough protein to build new cells and heal injury. A full complement of vitamins and minerals is necessary to build strong bones and joints, which can withstand the pressure of leaps and leg lifts. In her fact sheet, Clarkson recommends eating a diet consisting of 55 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 to 30 percent fat and 12 to 15 percent protein. The carbohydrate percentage can rise to 65 percent during heavy training. Iron, calcium and other minerals strengthen the body. A balanced diet made up of whole grains, dairy, lean red meat and five to six servings of vegetables daily will provide the necessary nutrients for a dancer's life.

Immunity

For a dancer, a sick day can mean the end of a job. If you can't perform, someone else will be given your spot. The immune system is the body's defense against illness. According to a 2011 article in "Exercise Immunology Review," heavy exertion, such as a hard week of rehearsals, can diminish the body's immune response. Recovery days and regular good-quality sleep are needed to reduce susceptibility to illness. And as with muscle, the diet provides the building blocks for immune cells. Fruits and vegetables provide antioxidants that help prevent illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer. Increasing carbohydrates during times of heavy training helps reduce stress hormones and inflammation. Recommendations range to up to 60 grams per hour of exertion. Quercetin, EGCG and other polyphenol supplements may help prevent illness during training. Always consult your health care practitioner to find out which supplements and doses are right for you.

 

About the Author

Stephanie Draus is a naturopathic doctor and assistant professor of clinical sciences at National University of Health Sciences. She has practiced in Chicago as a health consultant since 2005. She is a graduate of the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland, Oregon.

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