What difference does exercise make? Imagine two women the same age, who developed Alzheimer’s at the same time. If one of the women exercises regularly, finding activities and a pace that match her capabilities, she will look and feel better, with less anxiety and a better memory. The woman who doesn’t work out will soften and slow, with worse symptoms on top of mounting health problems.
Exercise, therefore, is an important priority for caregivers, because the quality of life for a person who works out regularly is so much better. This can be seen, as the body tightens and mood brightens, and science backs it up as well.
How, then, do we get our loved ones moving?
Exercise benefits people with Alzheimer’s disease, or other dementia, in obvious ways. Something as simple as a daily walk strengthens muscles, joints, and the heart, improving blood flow and breathing. Exercise also boosts coordination and mood (people who work out have less anxiety and depression).
But science has taken these common knowns to another level, demonstrating through studies that exercise’s benefits for people with dementia can directly target symptoms of dementia. In lab tests, mice with Alzheimer’s who were regularly exercised demonstrated improved memory compared to mice that stayed sedentary. Tests showed that fitter mice saw increased amounts of a molecule that promotes brain-cell health. This backs up what other studies have also determined: Regular exercise delays the onset of Alzheimer’s for people genetically at-risk of developing the disease, and improves memory and reasoning for people who have it. Exercise, in other words, is like medicine that lowers the amount of “biomarkers” for dementia, which are physical signs of the disease like a buildup of proteins between brain cells.
People with Alzheimer’s or other dementia may have a difficult time moving around. This is typical for people as they get older, but dementia makes it even harder because of poorer coordination, increased confusion, and common mood-related symptoms like depression and anxiety.
Exercise relieves all these problems! As caregiver, getting your loved one moving around should be near the top of your priorities.
Exercise is fun! Social interactions are important for people with dementia (science has shown this as well) and there are all kinds of activities to promote movement that you can do with your loved one, things as simple as
– Walking around the neighborhood, park, or indoor mall
– Doing chores at home or in the yard, like folding close or weeding
– Gym activities like swimming, lifting light weights, or aerobics.
You don’t have to turn your loved one into a superathlete. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise per day, five days per week. Instead of all at once, you can split it up into, for example, three 10-minute workouts. Never push too hard, just gauge what’s reasonable and plan accordingly. In other words: start small.
To get active and start fighting back against dementia with a little bit of sweat, try these tips:
Call the Doc
If your loved one has not historically done much exercising, check with a doctor before getting started on regular workouts, especially if your loved one has a history of heart or joint problems, high blood pressure, and balance or breathing issues.
Was your loved one a dancer or swimmer? Maybe gardening was a beloved pastime. If you can pinpoint a passion from the past, try to pursue this as exercise so your loved one will be more interested in staying active with enjoyable activities.
Local senior centers and Area Agencies on Aging can provide information about social activities and events available to seniors, including low-impact sports, chair exercises, tai chi, and yoga. Adult Day Care may be another option, with opportunities combining socialization and exercise.
Adapt to Stages
As dementia progresses, activities become more difficult and will have to be simplified. For instance, if dancing is a favorite hobby, you should learn easier steps your loved one can follow when it becomes more difficult.
You loved one may be more energetic and alert at particular times of day, like in the morning or afternoon. Be mindful of the body clock.
Turn It Up
Music is both calming and energizing, and beneficial for the brain. Adding music, especially for activities indoors, can make exercise time more productive.
Start first with smaller goals, like a walk around the yard, and work up to larger, more strenuous activities, like a walk around the neighborhood.
Be very responsive to how fast your loved one can move, and how much energy can be mustered. Make sure you’re going at a pace that’s comfortable. Pushing it could lead to frustration or, worse, injury.
Adding props like streamers, pom poms, a musical instrument, and small hand-held balls can make exercise more stimulating. Sit facing your seated loved one and perform stretching and strengthening motions holding these objects as though they were weights. Have your loved one copy the movements. Find a comfortable pace and take several breaks.
Elastic bands are common for people recovering in physical therapy, and can provide light resistance training for seniors to strengthen muscles. Have your loved one stretch the band with smooth motions. Bicep curls, leg presses, and much more are easy, and no heavy equipment is necessary. Seated may be best.
Talk to Test
To see if your loved one needs a break, try asking a question or having a brief conversation. The pace is good if it’s possible to speak without being short of breath. If heavy breathing makes it harder to talk, you should slow down.
When active outside, be sure your loved one wears a medical alert bracelet with your contact information and medical details like listing Alzheimer’s and other conditions including allergies.
Protect from the sun with sunglasses, long clothing, and sunblock.
Bring a water bottle and take regular breaks to drink. Maybe also bring a snack.
A memory care unit offers supervision and care specifically for people with dementia, and should absolutely be staffed with people who know how to get your loved one moving. If you’re considering memory care, be sure that exercise will be part of life there.
In later stages of dementia, your loved one will probably have difficulty moving alone, so adjust accordingly and don’t push it. You may have to physically move your loved one’s arms and legs, at least at first, but that is normal and OK. No matter how it’s done, movement is beneficial for your loved one at any stage.
At the very least, assist in getting outside to enjoy nature. Be careful to avoid bright sunlight and protect from insects.