Types of Exercise and Activities for People With Dementia

Going for a walk or playing a board game with friends can elevate our mood and promote health and wellness. Keeping the mind and body active is essential for all of us. Still, studies show that activity and exercise in someone with dementia can keep the body healthy, maximize the mind, and have a positive impact on a person's mood.

Key takeaways:
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    Physical activity can increase muscle strength, improve mood, and slow the progression of cognitive decline in someone with dementia.
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    People with dementia who regularly engage in social activities have a slower rate of disease progression.
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    Cognitive Reserve Hypothesis supports activity by stating that the brain of someone who regularly engages in activities is better able to cope with brain changes related to aging.
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    Gauge any exercise or activity to the person’s physical ability and stage of cognitive decline.

Exercising the body and mind may also slow the progression of cognitive decline in dementia and improve overall health and well-being.

Benefits of exercise

In 2015 the World Health Organization identified dementia as a "Global Public Health Priority" since the statistics show there is one new case of dementia identified every four seconds. With no known cure on the horizon, focusing on reducing risk factors associated with the development of dementia needs consideration. In addition, with an already established dementia, non-pharmacological approaches to managing symptoms and behaviors should be a priority before considering drug treatment intervention.

Comprehensive studies have shown that anti-depressant medications are not particularly effective for people with dementia who have depression. However, research shows that exercise reduces levels of depression in people with dementia. Exercise also relieves symptoms such as agitation, sundowning, and other challenging behaviors. In addition, improved sleep quality is evident with increased activity and exercise. Exercise has the potential to positively affect brain function and reduce the rate of cognitive decline.

Older adults with dementia often have a reduction in muscle strength and physical function that can result in falls. In addition, lengthy hospitalizations can result because these adults are more susceptible to fall injuries, such as hip fractures. However, an exercise regimen has shown the potential to increase body strength, endurance, and balance. As a result, there will be reduced falls and incidents of fracture.

Exercise tips

  • Always consult your medical practitioner before beginning any exercise program for someone with dementia.
  • 20 to 30 minutes a day of physical activity is ideal. However, begin with shorter activation periods if this is a new routine.
  • Avoid using the word "exercise" when trying to engage someone in an activity. Instead, treat it like a routine or something considered "fun".
  • Ensure environmental safety and that your loved one is dressed appropriately, including suitable footwear. Make sure your loved one is also well hydrated before any physical endurance.
  • Don't start with a vigorous or lengthy exercise, and avoid any environment that can be overwhelming for your loved one.
  • Going for a walk is ideal. In inclement weather, go for a walk in the shopping mall or join a seniors' walking program.
  • Some senior centers or local Alzheimer's Associations will host a chair exercise program, sometimes called "Sit to be Fit." These are ideal for someone with mobility challenges but will still enhance muscle strength.
  • Yoga or simple stretching. Free YouTube videos are available to guide you through a program. Even stretching while lying in bed before starting the day can be beneficial.
  • Use water exercises offered by local pools and senior groups. Activity in the water can reduce the stress on aging joints.
  • Lifting light weights can be fun and increases body strength. However, you may also want to consult a registered physiotherapist for program recommendations.
  • As music is often a way to encourage relaxation, dancing to the music can provide exercise and some fun in the process.

Benefits of activity

Activity can be physical or mental exercise. Exercising the brain provides benefits to someone with dementia. Keeping someone occupied with meaningful activity can reduce responsive behaviors and improve mood. In addition, studies have shown that the brain of someone with Alzheimer's and increased social and physical activities can result in a slower disease progression.

The accumulation of years of education and engagement may cause one person's brain to be more resilient than another’s. There is a theory called the "Cognitive Reserve Hypothesis" that states the brain of someone who regularly engages in activities is better able to cope with brain changes than someone who does not actively participate.

Cognitive reserves begin long before someone manifests signs of aging. Still, it is essential to preserve as much brain function as possible, regardless of the level of cognitive decline. Activities should not require new learning but reinforce existing skills that remain intact. The goal is to maintain self-esteem and increase a person's sense of well-being. Be sure to gauge any activity to a person's stage of dementia. For example, an overwhelming activity may trigger a negative behavioral response in some people. Instead, the goal should be to set someone up for success and reduce frustration.

Activity tips

  • Household chores such as making a bed, folding laundry, dusting furniture, vacuuming, or gardening.
  • Baking or prepare a meal together.
  • Social gatherings such as community faith groups, adult day programs, and family gatherings will help maintain a sense of community. However, please be mindful to keep the numbers small, as too many people at once may be overwhelming.
  • Take your loved one out for a drive in a familiar countryside and talk about past pleasurable events.
  • Practice a hobby they can still manage, such as a jigsaw puzzle, painting, or rug hooking.
  • Listening to music can be relaxing. However, if the person with dementia can still play an instrument, they once enjoyed, provide opportunities for them to participate.
  • Word and number puzzles and games; solitaire with physical cards or a computer gaming platform.
  • Tai chi or another low-impact form of martial art.
  • Consider short-duration activities such as coin sorting for your loved one with a reduced attention span due and advanced cognitive decline.
  • Avoid sitting your loved one in front of the television for long periods. Occasionally watching a favorite program is fine, but the passive intake of television may increase the progression of cognitive decline.

Activity and exercise for your loved one with dementia can provide a diversion and increase engagement when involving others. As their trusted family, friend, or caregiver, you can introduce ideas for activation based on their previous interests and skills. Stimulating the mind and body will also enrich the spirit of someone who may feel limited in their capacity to engage, thereby increasing their sense of purpose and well-being.

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