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!