Meaningful activities part two: Physical exercise

May 20, 2020
Lady gardening

Head of Research and Publications, Dr. Karen Harrison Dening, outlines the importance of physical exercise for families with dementia during coronavirus isolation and the best way to achieve this.

The old mantra of what is good for the heart is good for the brain rings true for people with dementia as much as it does for people who haven’t been diagnosed. Studies have in fact shown that people who engage in physical activity can bolster their mental health as well as their ability to think. Exercise seems to help your brain not only by keeping the blood flowing but also by increasing certain chemicals that protect the brain and tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occurs with ageing. It also reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes, strengthens bones and muscles and reduces stress.

As we mentioned in the introductory blog post of this series, exercise can be so meaningful to a person with dementia so it’s important to look at how these activities can help them specifically. Exercise can improve self-sufficiency, self-confidence and cognition and can also help to build or maintain muscle strength and balance, helping people living with dementia maintain their independence for longer.  There is also a lot of evidence to show that certain exercises can also be protective against frailty in older age which is often experienced by people living with dementia.

However exercise may be difficult to take part in now with all the confinement measures which have been put in place. There are still ways though in which you can improve your health even in the comfort of your own home and garden, if you have one.

Consider physical ability

First of all, it’s important to consider what a person with dementia is still able to do. Whether a person with dementia can take part in physical exercise depends on a number of factors. This can include pre-existing conditions such as arthritis, breathing problems, heart problems, high blood pressure, dizziness or fainting, balance problems or falls. If you don’t know already, you could check with your doctor if they are offering telephone or online appointments so you can establish if any pre-existing conditions might prevent some exercise activities. It is after all important to adapt the activity according to the person’s abilities.

Here’s a list of physical activity suggestions which a person with dementia may like to do around the home:

  • Gardening is a great way to exercise; it can be a light activity or something more strenuous depending on the person’s dementia. More importantly, it provides an opportunity to get outdoors which can help with stimulation and improve mood. However, you can also garden indoors through potting seeds, for example.  Standing at a worktop to do this can help strengthen balance muscles for the family carer and the person with dementia
  • Indoor bowls or skittles can again be an activity undertaken outside in your garden or indoors, and can be adapted to a person’s abilities, whether it’s carried out from either a standing or a seated position.  It can maintain and develop other skills related to hand eye coordination too.
  • Dance can be a very structured exercise. It can be an activity done within the home on a one to one basis.  It does not have to be masterful and of Strictly Come Dancing level to of benefit or enjoyable!  Both the person living with dementia and a family carer dancing to a favourite song using an outdoor coat as the partner can be both invigorating and fun! Dancing to a favourite song can also allow families to reminisce about a wedding or birthday dance providing a powerful moment of reconnection
  • Household chores can be great exercise, like folding laundry, dusting, light vacuuming, or washing the car.
  • A person living with dementia can also exercise from their chair, sofa or bed. It is often better if the family carer can perform it alongside the person with dementia so any activities can be mirrored.  It can also help engagement and flow of the movements if you play accompanying music from a playlist with all their favourite songs for example.

Some examples of seated exercises include:

  • Whilst holding a ball or a cushion rotate at the waist moving the ball from left to right.
  • Stepping in rhythm to music in a marching like fashion.
  • With heels on the floor alternatively tap each set of toes to music.
  • Lift arms out in front and then slowly raise to the ceiling and waggle hands and fingers.
  • Raise arms to the song ‘head, shoulders, knees & toes’ (build up the stages and include toes when able).
  • Holding hands on the arms of a chair, move bottom to the seat edge and slowly raise to a standing position.
  • Stretch while lying in bed and move various body parts and stretch stiff muscles, this can be done with assistance (passive exercise with the support of a carer) or independently.

You can work together to create more types of exercises at a sitting position to music and there are lots of videos that can guide you through some basic exercise, such as this one.

  • These activities can also be done from a standing position but may be more strenuous. Start slow and build up the numbers of movements in a cycle as the person becomes used to the movement and pace.

Beyond the home….

  • If it’s still possible for you to do so, you can also see if you can exercise together somewhere close to your home, such as a walk along country lanes or around your street. Please ensure that you follow government guidance in maintaining two metres distance from people when you’re outside. If you are worried about your loved one with dementia not being able to follow this guidance, then it is best to stay in the home to exercise.

Meaningful activities: part one

Read part one of Dr Karen Harrison Dening’s blog post about meaningful activities for a person with dementia

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Coronavirus advice

If any family with dementia is concerned about what coronavirus means to them, you can visit our online hub

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Dementia Helpline

Do you have a question or concern about dementia – including Alzheimer’s? Call our free Dementia Helpline to speak to a dementia specialist Admiral Nurse

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