How to Encourage Exercise for Someone With Dementia

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Exercise has been called the "fountain of youth" for its countless health-preserving benefits, including safeguarding healthy people against mental declines. Researchers believe physical activity also benefits those who already have dementia.

Benefits of Exercise for Those with Dementia

Among the reasons to keep active, even with dementia:

  • To slow mental decline. Several recent studies of people with dementia have shown that exercise seems to slow brain atrophy, especially in the hippocampus, which influences memory and spatial navigation.
  • To improve physical function. Movement aids flexibility and strength. One study found that women with dementia (average age 80) who exercised three times a week were better able to feed, dress, and bathe themselves than a control group of those with dementia who didn't exercise.
  • To reduce the risk of falls. People with dementia tend to fall more often than those without cognitive impairment. Changes in judgment and spatial control probably contribute to this. Exercise can help someone with dementia improve balance and be less fearful of falling.
  • To lift mood, ease stress, and add calm. It's believed that moving the body during the day helps lessen incidents involving aggression and agitation. Exercise can help reduce the effects of depression, a condition that's common among people with dementia.
  • To improve general cardiovascular health. Scientists know there's a connection between heart health, blood pressure, and dementia. Although it's unclear how this relationship might be altered once the disease has begun, the general protective benefits of exercise apply to everyone, regardless of their cognitive health.
  • To pass time in an enjoyable way. Movement fills the day. It also provides a sense of accomplishment for the person with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
  • To improve sleep. Sleep disorders are common among those with dementia. Exercise can help them get into a better sleep routine.

How to Help Someone with Dementia Start Exercising

Even someone who has never worked out can begin a more physical way of life. Some type of exercise exists for almost everyone with Alzheimer's (except those in end-stage disease) or other forms of dementia, from older adults with early dementia and no other ailments who can do aerobic-level activity in a class, to the wheelchair bound who may prefer simple range-of-motion movements.

Think like a tortoise -- start slow, go slow. It's go that's the operative word. Talk to your friend or relative's doctor before beginning an exercise program. Find the right pace and don't push.

It's true that helping someone exercise is "one more thing to do." But it can be a fun and mutually beneficial way to pass time. Stay nearby or, better yet, participate together.

What Exercises to Try

The bustle and newness of a gym can be overwhelming for someone with Alzheimer's or another form of dementia. But there are plenty of ways to get physical activity outside of a gym. Ideal for beginners:

  • Simple stretches and strength training. Try using canned goods as light weights.
  • Tai chi. Find a DVD and try it at home. It helps with balance as well as providing exercise.
  • Walks. Just going around the yard is fine. Early in the disease, walking in a mall might not be too disorienting. Stick together if you head out into crowds or beyond a fenced area.
  • Gardening. Simply pulling weeds can be a satisfying source of exercise.
  • Water exercise. Check local Y's or senior centers and ask if you can take classes together.
  • Household chores. Try hanging laundry, dusting, washing the car.
  • Stationary bike. If you don't have one at home, try one at the gym or senior center.
  • Exercise class. Some senior centers and facilities offer classes specifically for people with dementia.

A Special Benefit for Caregivers

Exercise is a stress reliever. And who needs stress release more than the caregiver? Even if you can't run or swim laps with your friend or relative, at least by moving about with him you're getting some physical activity yourself. Maximize the benefits by arranging a substitute caregiver so you can get in a real workout later by yourself, even if it's just a few times a week.

Allison Wojtowecz from Flabs to Fitness suggests, "Listen to an audiobook or your favorite album while walking or lifting weights. Take your camera along while hiking - you’ll be more likely to spend extra time outdoors if you are taking some great nature shots." These are great ideas that can help you get a few steps in and decompress at the same time. Got others? Leave them in the comments section!

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 6 years, said...

Helpful: (1) the benefits of: exercise in slowing dementia and (2) use of pedometers to motivate exercising. UNhelpful: A description of the various pedometers and the usefulness of each feature of each one.

about 6 years, said...

What sort of pedometer is recommended? There are so many types and so many choices of bells and whistles. I'd like to access any sites which explain the bells and whistles and which can be used by someone who is starting to exercise to avoid the slow decline, and who had previously not exercised.

over 6 years, said...

My 79 yr old husband has vascular dementia. He would ride his bicycle if he could, but he can't really get on & off it anymore. He's had several "bouts" of physical therapy, but he doesn't really "get" what it's for. His walking improves when he exercises, so we've gotten the dr to order PT every so often and he goes until he tires of it or until they fire him for not improving (since he doesn't do the homework). My problem is that I feel as if I have to try to find a way to get him to do it or I'm not doing MY job! Last week I got his dr. to write an order for gait & balance training, but my husband was very clear that he has no interest in doing it. Note that this attitude is NOT new with his dementia--he never has liked anybody "telling him what to do", but he used to be very active & athletic. Should I be driving myself crazy trying to figure out a way to motivate him? Or should I respect his desire to just do what HE wants to do, which right now is to walk a block up the street with his canes and have his caregiver bring him home in the wheelchair? Knowing he "could" improve if he "would" is very distressing to me. On the other hand, if you can't do what you want when you are almost 80 years old, when can you?

over 7 years, said...

I am a runner - I also am primary caregiver for my mom with Alzheimers - We used to walk to our dock almost every day - now the trails are too technical for her BUT - the street is just fine! I feel incredibly guilty if I don't run and if I don't give my mom the benefit of light physical exercise. There have been obstacles as her condition worsens - hills can be tough, her hip hurts sometimes yet I strongly feel like use it or lose it!!! I am also doing all I can to help myself not fall victim to this disease! Exercise done correctly can never be a bad thing!!