Are the Effects of Physical Activity Good for Dementia Patients?

Physical exercise is crucial in maintaining a healthy lifestyle and overall well being. Studies have shown that regular physical activity can positively affect brain function and cognitive health, including improved blood flow to the brain and stimulation of brain cell growth.

For patients with dementia, regular exercise is vital for physical fitness and maintaining a sense of purpose, pleasure, and self-confidence. 

At NursePartners, our private nurses are trained in the Teepa Snow Positive Physical Approach to Care™, a specialized approach for caring for individuals with dementia. Our certified nursing assistants provide high-quality care for patients in Philadelphia, Montgomery, Chester, and Delaware Counties.

In this article, we will discuss the effects of physical activity and how it can slow cognitive decline.

What Role Does Physical Activity Play in Reducing the Risk of Dementia?

Dementia is a collection of symptoms related to cognitive decline that can be debilitating. Contrary to popular belief, dementia may not directly result from aging. This means that steps can be taken to decrease the risk of developing dementia. 

New research has shown that a small daily dose of high-intensity exercise may be beneficial. In one study, researchers found that brief periods of physical activity that cause sweating can increase BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) levels. BDNF is a molecule that plays a role in the formation of new neural connections and the survival of brain cells. These findings have piqued the interest of researchers who hope to utilize this protein to improve brain health.

Can Physical Exercise Reduce the Risk of Developing Dementia?

According to the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK, which has analyzed the results of 11 different studies, regular aerobic exercise is one of the most significant lifestyle changes a person can make to reduce the risks of being diagnosed with dementia. (The risk of dementia is reduced by around 30%.)

Even those in their eighties who do physical exercise are less likely to develop dementia. Moreover, a literature review has revealed that studies focused on physical activity and the link with brain function showed less brain shrinkage in older people. It is suggested a cognitive decline in later life is less likely for those who participate in aerobic exercise.

Does Physical Exercise Have Benefits for People With Dementia?

Where patients with dementia are concerned, regular exercise is vital to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, a sense of purpose, pleasure, and confidence. Socializing, which is often part and parcel of physical activity, is beneficial in that it helps reduce stress and depression, which are commonly experienced by those with dementia.

Improving communication and social skills through exercise improves the patient’s self-esteem and frame of mind and encourages further interaction, reduced isolation, and a sense of wellbeing. 

Physical activity improves sleep, and even in dementia patients, it has proven essential for enhancing memory, slowing mental decline, and maintaining motor skills. Fitter, more flexible patients with dementia are generally able to dress, clean, cook, and get about without too much assistance, making life less difficult for the individual and their carers.

In addition, physical exercise helps caregivers distract and deal with the patient’s more challenging behavior. There is usually less evidence of aggression and wandering.

Aside from the cognitive benefits, exercise can also be beneficial to dementia patients’ overall physical wellbeing:

The benefits of regular physical activity may include:

  • A lowered risk of type-2 diabetes, stroke, and cancers, such as breast and colon cancer.
  • Better heart and blood vessel health which can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease.
  • Better bone density profile for those who exercise regularly. This means that they’re less likely to suffer from weak, porous bones that might be prone to fracturing, possibly causing disablement.
  • Helps ease constipation 
  • Improved muscle strength and balance, which can help prevent falls

What is Aerobic Exercise?

Different studies have used varying criteria to determine what constitutes physical activity. They generally refer to a sustained 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise—the kind of brisk exercise that increases the heart rate and makes you breathe more deeply—being done five days a week over at least a year. 

This depends on the individual being well, not experiencing pain, or showing signs of over-exercising.

Don’t worry about how you’ll ever manage ballet or kickboxing lessons after years of sedentary living. The exercise criteria of these studies do not refer only to running or playing a sport but also include less taxing activities such as brisk walking, gardening, and housework.

The daily quota of 30-60 minutes of exercise can be split into 10 or 15-minute sessions of different activities done throughout the day.

Types of Exercise

Although there are numerous activities you can take on, this list comprises a few examples of exercises that virtually anyone can participate in during the early and middle stages of dementia.

  • Walking does not require specialized equipment; it can be done wherever you are, and the distance, time, and gradient can be adapted to suit any ability. Some organizations arrange group walks, which can also become an enjoyable social activity.
  • Seated exercises can be conducted at home or in a group setting. These exercises are less strenuous than exercises done while standing up and are worthwhile for those who sometimes experience dizziness when moving into an upright position. Repetitions can be slowly increased.

Examples of what you can do while seated include: marching, raising heels and toes, bicycling the legs, raising and lowering, or circling the arms, raising opposite arms and legs, and turning the upper body from side to side. You can even dance in a seated position!

  • Dance forms are many and varied, from ballroom to line dancing. This is a social activity and may not seem like exercise, making it a good option as you will be more likely to enjoy dancing than weight training. It reduces stress and builds agility, flexibility, and strength.
  • Gardening is another healthy and enjoyable activity that allows the individual to spend time outdoors in the fresh air. Gardening is recommended for people at any stage of dementia. Tasks may be as simple as weeding, pruning, gathering up piles of cuttings, and depositing them in the barrow or compost heap. Alternatively, mowing and raking are ideal for fitter individuals.
  • Swimming is a good cardio-vascular activity and improves balance. For obvious reasons, it should be conducted under supervision, but water is a soothing medium and the sensation of being immersed in water has a calming effect.
  • Tai chi is a gentle combination of physical movement and meditation which is particularly useful in improving balance, agility, and stability.

What about Exercise for those with Advanced Dementia?

Remaining active reduces the need for constant supervision and adaptations such as stair-lifts. There is no one-size-fits-all to the question of how much activity is needed in advanced dementia since each individual is different. A doctor or physiotherapist can make suggestions on appropriate exercise.

As dementia progresses, activities will need to take into account abilities that have been lost, and activities should not involve new learning. Do the activities at times that suit the patient. If seeing family, do this when they are more receptive. 

If they are restless in the late afternoon, that may be the perfect time to take a walk. Ensure they wear some other form of identification in case they wander off and get lost.

Let them practice entrenched skills at their own pace. These might include watering gardens and sweeping or buttering bread—tasks that make them feel included and useful. 

Patients may have problems with visual perception and coordination. Too much stimulation, crowds, movement, or noise will likely overwhelm the patient, while positive associations with, say, music and dancing, animals, or young children can help them engage. Good lighting, uncluttered surfaces, and simple instructions focusing on one manageable step at a time are ideal.

Ensure they are hydrated and that they wear sunscreen and a hat outdoors. If they become dizzy, faint, or experience pain, consult a doctor.

To find out what exercises might be appropriate in the later stages of dementia, click here.

Nurse Care in Philadelphia, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties

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At NursePartners our private nurses are screened thoroughly for compassion and competence. Contact us today by calling 610-323-9800 for a free consultation.

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