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Moving for your mental health

Joe Costello, Consultant Admiral Nurse for Sport and Dementia, talks about the importance of exercise for people living with dementia and their carers.

A man smiles to the camera while running a marathon for Dementia UK 

Why keeping active is important to a person’s mental health

It is well established that keeping active supports positive mental health and wellbeing.   

Exercise has benefits in improving mood, self-esteem and motivation, while reducing stress, loneliness and anxiety. Often, it also provides vital social contact which is critical for our wellbeing. Let’s face it, exercising with others makes it a whole lot more fun! 

Everyone can benefit from exercise, including people living with dementia. 

Ways for people with dementia to keep moving

As long as it can be done safely, a person with dementia should be supported to be physically active. 

Everyone’s dementia journey is different, so there is no blanket approach to prescribing exercise routines. But generally speaking, some good forms of exercise include: 

  • walking/dog walking 
  • running 
  • swimming 
  • cycling 
  • yoga 
  • Pilates 
  • Tai Chi 
  • group exercise classes 
  • dancing 
  • housework and gardening 
  • golf 

People with young onset dementia (where symptoms develop before the age of 65) in particular may already be enjoying an active lifestyle. If they like to run or cycle but may become confused or disorientated if they go out alone, teaming up with an ‘exercise buddy’ or joining a club can be helpful. It’s better to make adjustments rather than stopping altogether. 

If the person living with dementia has mobility problems, chair-based exercises can be a great way to keep moving, as can some light stretches, or a walk around the house (using a walking frame if needed), ensuring that a carer is present. 

Prioritsing exercise as a carer 

Being in a caring role often brings with it feelings of stress and exhaustion. Making time to pursue and participate in meaningful activities is crucial for the carer’s own physical and mental health. 

Carers will have their own sporting interests or favourite ways to keep moving. It’s paramount to continue engaging in these to support their own identity and sense of self. 

Rachel, who is caring for her mum who has young onset dementia, says, “Going to the gym has become my outlet – it’s nice to have that time to myself. This has helped enormously with both my physical and mental health. I don’t feel like I’m a carer when I’m at the gym – I’m just me.” 

People living with dementia can still be involved in sport or group exercise

It is important that sports are inclusive for people with dementia, and we are getting better at making sure this is the case.  

Brian played football all his life. It’s one of his great passions. When dementia came along, rather than giving up this huge part of his life, he started playing walking football: “Although I am not playing at the level I used to, I still really enjoy walking football. I’ve met a lot of new people who have become good friends. My teammates have been very supportive since my diagnosis. We still have a lot of fun and banter in the changing room like in the good old days.” 

In some areas, there are specific fitness activities for people with dementia, such as dementia-inclusive exercise classes or swimming sessions – contact your local leisure centre to see what is available. 

If playing is no longer possible, people with dementia can still be involved by spectating, helping at sporting events or just being part of a team in a social capacity. This sense of togetherness is so important for good mental wellbeing. 

I cannot wait for the Paris Olympic Games this summer! It’s a great opportunity for the world to come together to celebrate, participate and compete in a diverse range of individual and team sports. It’s an event that can also serve as a great dose of inspiration for all of us to keep moving. As well as this, someone living with dementia may enjoy watching the Olympics for the nostalgia it brings from previous Games, or for the opportunity to enjoy the spectacle with family.  

Bring on Paris!