Physical activity can improve the health of mind, body and spirit, and there’s evidence that exercise can protect against dementia. Research is confirming that staying active may help those affected by dementia to maintain their independence and boost their quality of life.

Exercise helps with almost every long term condition; it can reduce the likelihood of developing dementia and the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

We all know that exercise is important for our health, it’s constantly advocated in books, blogs and on TV. But regular activity can offer more than just a fit physique. Activity can help protect the brain from dementia as we age, and slow down deterioration in people already affected.

Regular exercise really is essential for a healthy body and a healthy mind.

Research shows that exercise works, not only to improve the general health of people with dementia, but it also appears to improve their cognitive function, boost their mood and maintain their ability to care for themselves.

Activity at any age

Exercise is beneficial whether you’re nine or ninety, it’s about being fit for life.
Resistance activities can maintain muscles and build bone strength. This can prevent falls and fractures but also makes it easier to carry out everyday tasks like climbing out of the bath, standing from a low chair or walking up stairs.

An active life

The idea of starting an exercise regime can seem intimidating and unappealing. But living an active life doesn’t have to be about completing the Great North Run or dressing up in lycra hotpants.

Even relatively modest changes can make a real difference.

Taking daily walks, using the stairs instead of the escalator, enjoying sport with grandchildren, joining a local Bowles team, or even going to a tea dance can all help increase levels of fitness and improve health and wellbeing.

Low intensity activities like Yoga, Pilates and Thai Chi can improve flexibility and balance, however increasing the exercise intensity appears to have even greater benefits on function. Introducing a mix of activities can be socially and physically stimulating.

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So, as well as adding walks, swims or gardening into the routine, it’s a good idea to check on dance or fitness classes in your area.

As fitness and function increase, then it can be safe to walk further, to add in uphill sections or to add in new and more challenging activities.

Changes in brain and body

The observable benefits of exercise in dementia appear to be reflected by changes in the brain.

People with dementia that took part in intense programs of aerobic exercise showed a decrease in some of the characteristic Alzheimer’s changes in the brain as well as better blood flow in the areas controlling memory and processing. That’s a real incentive to get moving.

Preventative powers

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, so our only way of getting the better of this terrible disease is by changing our lifestyles to slow the symptoms. Regular physical activity reduces the rate of cognitive decline and protects against Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

Unfortunately, busy lives, illness and arthritis mean that as we age, we tend to exercise less.

Strong legs and a strong mind

As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass. This can decrease strength and mobility, make us more prone to injury and it may also have an impact on our mental function. Research from King’s College London has shown that people with stronger leg muscles performed better in tests of cognitive function.

That doesn’t mean that our legs are controlling the brain, instead, it suggests that the sort of resistance exercises that build muscles may also benefit the brain. This is due, in no short measure, to increased blood flow, and the cognitive power it takes to coordinate when exercising.

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When people think about resistance training, they picture heavyweights and expensive equipment. However, working with our own body weight can be a fantastic way of boosting strength.

There are excellent ways of building muscle strength at home.

Simple step-ups and standing push-ups against the wall can work the body.

Squatting exercises are great for increasing leg strength and improving mobility. But it is absolutely essential to stay safe, holding a chair or working with a physiotherapist or trainer is sensible until you’re less wobbly and more confident.

Safety first

It’s understandable to feel nervous about the potential for accidents and falls; safety is an important consideration. However, many day centres, gyms and leisure centres run classes for the elderly with expert instructors monitoring movements.

Get a check-up from the GP or a referral for physiotherapy for a guided exercise programme.

If you feel your loved one needs a little supervision, then Home Carers can be employed to come into the home to monitor, assist and offer a supportive hand whenever necessary.

With the right exercise, you can decrease the impact of Alzheimer’s and help your loved one stay physically fit and mobile so that they can live well with dementia.

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Dr Jane Gilbert

Jane has over 20 years’ experience as a health writer and TV presenter. Jane writes on a wide variety of clinical and care topics – from explaining the latest studies and research to unpacking conditions and discussing treatment options. Jane holds a MBBS degree from Imperial College, London and spent seven years working in the NHS.

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