Leading doctors said yesterday that ballroom dancing could offer a treatment for Britain's growing number of obese people. Ballroom dancing, they claim, is not only good entertainment, as last night's television final of Strictly Come Dancing proved: it is one of the best forms of cerebral and aerobic exercise.

The celebrity-studded TV programme is credited with boosting dancing's popularity, but now medical experts hope people can be encouraged to turn off the box and take to the dancefloor themselves.

Dr Alan Maryon-Davis, president of the Faculty on Public Health at the Royal College of Physicians, said: "Ballroom dancing can be extremely beneficial for a person's fitness. Depending on which dance you do, they can be pretty hard work. For example, Latin dance, jive and the quick step are very energetic. They are wonderful forms of cardiovascular exercise."

Nor are the benefits purely physical. "Exercise can help mental health sufferers in their fight against depression," said Matt Birks, a senior lecturer in mental health at Derby University. One reason, dance science expert Emma Redding suggested, is the challenge of learning the dance steps. "When you are concentrating hard on mastering a new step or thinking about what comes next in a sequence, you don't have room in your head to be worrying about your problems," she said.

Strictly contestant John Barnes revealed that he entered the show to shed some pounds. The former footballer, whose weight has crept up since his playing days ended, said: "I wanted to get fit and lose weight. I needed something to push me. This was that something." After his stint on the show, the ex-England star was more than 20lb lighter.

Schools have also recognised the benefits of getting children moving to music. Last December the IoS revealed ministerial plans for dance classes on the NHS to combat the nation's burgeoning obesity crisis.

As well as a health bonus there is also the chance of meeting a more permanent partner. "Ballroom dancing has the added benefit of being a social activity, unlike the gym," said Professor Stephen Field, chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners. "It is a chance to meet people which is particularly effective for working people," he said.

The numbers taking up ballroom are rising so fast that official figures haven't yet caught up. Only last week, when the Royal Festival Hall's Clore Ballroom was reopened after a major refit, hundreds of people turned up to (fox)trot their stuff.

Ballroom dancing has its origins in England in the late 18th century, among the upper classes. Only early in the 20th century did it become popular among the working classes who attended public dance halls. During the last century, it gained increasing popularity across Europe, the Americas and Asia: "I have seen a lot of success within ethnic minority groups, especially Muslim women, who tend to do very little exercise but are happy to attend dance classes, especially those specifically for their cultural group," Dr Maryon-Davis added.

There is just one word of warning: Sammy Margo, of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, said there has been a rise in ankle and foot injuries since ballroom took off.

Additional reporting by Senay Boztas and Yvonne Pardo

How to lose the beat in one simple lesson

It should have been so easy. We've watched them on TV and it looks like a piece of cake. Walking into a dance studio for the first time in my life, I was confident of one fact: whatever the time signature, I would move to it like a jungle cat.

A beginners' class it may have been but discipline was rigorous and concentration levels had to remain high at all times. After a few simple moves in front of the mirror it was time to put them into practice with a partner. We started with the rumba, the slowest of the five Latin dances. Its "1, 2, 3" rhythm was steady and, as long as you focused on timing, things ran fairly smoothly. Then came the quickstep. Only it wasn't. The combination of one "quick" beat and two "slow" got me in a muddle. I careered dangerously close to the floor-to-ceiling mirrors.

My mind was tiring now once you lose concentration, even for a second, the beat is lost and everything falls apart. Losing the beat for the fifth time in a row, and stepping on my partner's toes for the second time, I was wiping sweat from my brow. And ringing in my ears were the words of 'Strictly Come Dancing' judge Bruno Tonioli: "Tutankhamun in a frock would have done a better job. The footwork was mummified."

Paul Bignell