Staying Active with Alzheimer’s

Kathleen Allen, LCSW, C-ASWCM

Senior Care Management Services, LLC

  • Expert Advice
Published on:
A woman walking outdoors next to a lake with mountains in the background.

“What is good for the heart is good for the brain.” This is frequently stated as common guidance for people wondering how to either slow the onset or progression of dementia or Alzheimer’s. This article provides a few helpful tips for staying physically active along the path of Alzheimer’s disease.

There is evidence on the benefit of lifestyle changes for brain health, from a growing number of clinical trials and observational studies. The University of British Columbia researchers published study findings in The British Journal of Sports Medicine, comparing the effects of a three-times-a week walking program for those with vascular dementia with a control group of individuals who did not walk. The study size was small—38 in all, but the researchers were very encouraged by what they found on brain imaging results. At the conclusion of the six-month-long program, the brains of the 19 walkers had changed in a way the brains of the control group of 19 non-walkers had not. The walkers had become more efficient in their thinking, and they showed improved cognitive skills. Their blood pressures were also lower which is also good for the brain, and the body.

In his article, “Exercise and Brain Health,” James Ellison, MD explains how exercise has such an important role in decreasing or slowing Alzheimer’s risk. States Dr. Ellison, “Exercise helps regulate blood pressure and it lowers the levels of blood fats. This can favorably affect the risk for arteriosclerotic vascular disease that affects both heart and brain. Exercise helps maintain healthy responsiveness of cells to insulin, a regulator of metabolism. Exercise also decreases inflammatory responses throughout the body.”

Get Physical

So many of us question what we should do to keep our brains in good shape. Dr. Ellison has a response to that too. In his article Beyond Brain Games: What’s a Brain Healthy Lifestyle? Dr. Ellison explains his answer to the oft-stated question of “Should I do crossword puzzles?” His answer? “Do the crossword puzzle when you come back from your walk.” Whether you are trying to prevent your risk of Alzheimer’s, or slow  its progression, exercise needs to have a place in your everyday life. The University of British Columbia study is just the most recent study to demonstrate this.

Exercising Along the Path of Alzheimer’s Disease

For the healthy and physically able adult, following an exercise plan is simple enough.  What about the person with Alzheimer’s? At some point in their disease process, keeping them active will also require us to keep them safe. Early on, always make sure walkers or runners with Alzheimer’s wear ID bracelets.

As the disease progresses, walking or running will require a buddy. Other options for the one who is further along in their disease process are to break the activities into shorter periods. This will help them stay focused long enough to accomplish their daily exercise goal, for 5-10 minutes at a time. Try other activities to help them stay engaged, while also keeping them safe. Turn the music up and dance, bat a balloon around, find a chair exercise video and follow along. Always make sure their exercise clothing and shoes are comfortable and fit well.

For those who have difficulty with mobility, exercise or movement is still possible. Even if it is just upper body movement, continue to make it a part of the day. Batting balloons around, hitting soft balls back and forth, lifting weights (or soup cans if that is what you have). Put the music on, raise your arms and sway with the beat. Tailor the activity to the participant. Make it fun. The brain will benefit. The body will too.

About the author

Headshot of Kathleen Allen.

Kathleen Allen, LCSW, C-ASWCM

Senior Care Management Services, LLC

Kathleen Allen has been working with older adults and their families for over 20 years.

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