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Story highlights

  • Dancing can be a great workout for your heart and mind

  • Athletes have trained alongside dancers to improve balance and flexibility

(CNN)Whitney Thore had gained nearly 100 pounds. It stemmed from polycystic ovary syndrome, and she found it hard to accept her larger figure.

Her emotional distress peaked while she was living abroad and dealing with a breakup. Frustrated and unable to find relief, she turned on some music and started to dance.

"I was all alone in an apartment by myself, and I closed my eyes and just naturally let my body move the way that it wanted to, which is something I hadn't done in over a decade. And as I'm just moving, just swaying, eventually I started moving more and more. And within minutes, I was just crying," she said.

The catharsis she found in that moment was powerful; it jarred her, so much that she didn't dance again until she was back in the United States and a friend encouraged her to film a routine with him. The resulting viral video catapulted Thore into the spotlight.

But Thore, now 33, says she wasn't looking for fame or notoriety. The self-proclaimed "fat girl" known for her appearances on the television show "My Big Fat Fabulous Life" says that more than anything else, dance has had a positive impact on her health.

"After I gained all the weight, I pretty much stopped doing any physical activity, so dance is what opened the door back up for me," she said. Beyond the physical benefits, Thore says, she noticed overnight a positive impact on her mental health as well.

"Once I realized that I could dance I thought, 'well, what else can I do?' And then I started getting back in the gym, and I started boxing and started running on a treadmill," she said.

Dancing is often considered a recreational activity and all too often overlooked for the positive physical, mental and social health qualities.

As Thore describes it, "dance is the most basic and most honest form of communication between my mind and my body and between me and the world."

And as Emily Sandow, supervisor of dance physical therapy at NYU Langone's Harkness Center for Dance Injuries, phrases it, "the integration of the body and the soul" is key to any healthy lifestyle and at the center of dance.

'All you need is yourself'

Dancing, for Thore, provided a great cardiovascular workout that could be done anywhere without the hassle of going to a gym or any equipment. "You don't need any workout tools; you don't need any weights or machines or anything like that. Literally, all you need is yourself."

The workout you get from dancing can vary depending on the type of movements being performed. At the end of an hourlong ballet lesson, participants have undoubtedly stretched various muscle groups and executed moves with precision and balance. A night out on the dance floor at a club or wedding reception, however, often results in an increased heart rate for a longer period.

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