Hula is truly for the heart


Last semester, I worked with a colleague who was teaching the course “Middle Age and Aging” in the Family and Consumer Sciences Department at UH-Manoa. I mentored her students in creating newspaper articles of interest to older adults and their families in Maui. A few student projects will be highlighted periodically over the next year in Aging Matters. This article is a lightly edited version of Lindsay Saito’s project. Lindsay just completed her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and rehabilitation sciences and is planning to apply to graduate school in occupational therapy. 

King Kalakaua once famously stated, “Hula is the language of the heart, therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” For many Hawaiians, hula is a way to stay connected to their culture, and a recent study has also shown it can improve heart health. Heart disease rates among Native Hawaiians are almost twice that of other ethnic groups, which increases their risk of heart attack and stroke. Researchers from the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine and The Queen’s Medical Center conducted a five-year research project to determine whether hula could be prescribed as cardiac rehabilitation therapy.

The researchers recruited over 250 Native Hawaiians around the age of 60 years old who had a systolic (top number) blood pressure of 140 mmHg or higher or had a systolic blood pressure of 130 mmHg or higher and also had type 2 diabetes. Participants attended one-hour hula classes twice a week for three months, followed by one monthly lesson for three additional months with self-directed practice and group activities to reinforce healthy behaviors that contribute to lower blood pressure readings. On average, dancers’ systolic blood pressure dropped to about 130. Although normal is considered anything under 120, a drop of at least 5 mmHg in systolic blood pressure can lower a person’s risk of heart disease by 21 percent and stroke by 34 percent.

The study found that hula could match the cardiac workout of a pickup basketball game and that the intensity is adjustable to meet the needs of any age group. Many participants found that joining a hula class helped them gain confidence, which allowed them to better maintain healthier habits throughout their life. One study participant had to drop out due to time conflicts, but the class inspired her to take further actions for her health. She stated that after taking hula classes, “sometimes you just need to know that you can do something, to change your belief, and that is what the class helped me do.”

Another important aspect of this research was determining whether people would be more inclined to exercise if it was culturally meaningful. Hula had never been quantitatively evaluated as part of a health program. However, local doctors have encouraged patients to maintain flexibility and improve heart function through their participation in hula. Participants in the study said that hula was fun, enjoyable, and met their spiritual and cultural needs.

Hula not only resonated with the participant’s cultural values and perspectives, but it also provided social support, which can play an important role in recovery from hospitalization for major cardiac events, improving long-term survival and lowering the risk or rehospitalization. Halau create family-oriented groups that provide strong social bonds that last a lifetime. Dancers often call one another their hula sisters or brothers and extend respect to everyone. Hula creates a family-like support system rooted in the essential cultural value of aloha, which is fundamental to hula.

Hula has shown to be hugely beneficial for overall well-being and health. Finding enjoyable physical activities, such as hula, can be a step in the right direction of maintaining a healthy and happier lifestyle. If you have danced in the past or are thinking about joining a halau, don’t be afraid to give a class a try. Not only will you be in engaging in a culturally rich practice that involves the mind, body and spirit, but you will also be dancing your way toward a healthier heart filled with aloha.

Lindsay referenced two studies in this article. The first, “Patient perspectives on the Hula Empowering Lifestyle Adaptation Study: Benefits of dancing hula for cardiac rehabilitation,” was printed in the journal Health Promotion Practice in 2015 and can be read at go.hawaii.edu/wqA. The second, “Cultural dance program improves hypertension management for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders,” was printed in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities in 2017 and can be read at  go.hawaii.edu/4qA.

* Heather Greenwood-Junkermeier is with the University of Hawaii Manoa Cooperative Extension, Maui Aging and Intergenerational Programs. Aging Matters covers topics of interest to the aging Maui community and appears on the third Saturday of each month.


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