Ballet dancers are known for their physical grace — the ability they have to move precisely and smoothly from one motion to the next. This poise does not only come because they practice constantly, though. A new study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology reported that professional ballet dancers’ many years of training have enabled their nervous systems to coordinate their muscles to a better level than individuals without dance training.

The nervous system consists of the brain, spinal cord, and a network of nerves throughout the body. It’s what allows the body’s different systems to coordinate and communicate with each other (ie: the brain controlling the movement of the leg muscles). The nervous system activates muscles in groups, rather than controlling each muscle individually. These muscle groups are referred to as “motor modules,” and they in turn combine to achieve a wide range of motion.

In the new research, a team from Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology looked at whether long-term dance training affects how motor modules are recruited when moving. They compared ballet dancers with at least 10 years of training to people with no dance or gymnastics training. Activity of muscles in the legs and torso was tracked as the study participants simply walked across the floor, across a wide beam, and across a challenging narrow beam. The two groups had similar gait patterns when walking the floor or first beam, but when it came to the narrow beam, ballet dancers showed better balance and walked farther.

The dancers recruited more motor modules to do this, and did it much more consistently than untrained participants. The researchers reported that the ballet dancers utilized their muscles more efficiently and effectively than their untrained counterparts, supporting the idea that training can influence the control we have over everyday movements. The report suggested that years of training actually changed how the nervous system coordinated muscles for walking and balancing motions.

Past research has explored the benefits of dance training both in healthy individuals and the disabled. It has been shown to improve the neuromuscular coordination of those with autism, and to improve the heart and lung health of participants.

Source: Sawers A, Allen J, Ting L. Long-term training modifies the modular structure and organization of walking balance control. Journal of Neurophysiology. 2015.