Of all the lifestyle changes studied, regular physical exercise is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of dementia.
Multiple studies prove that regular exercise can have numerous benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies have even shown that exercise can help improve cognitive function and may even slow the progression of the disease.
For older adults, especially those with Alzheimer’s disease, even leisurely physical activity offers health benefits. An active lifestyle can manage symptoms such as agitation, wandering, restlessness, paranoia, and sleep disturbances.
“Rather than being reactive to an on-the-go mentality, we can be proactive by encouraging exercise and movement throughout the disease process,” says Megan Leone, CDP, a memory care director at Oakmont Management Group.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and National Physical Fitness and Sports Month. In celebration of whole-body health, the Alzheimer’s Caregivers Network asked the caregiving community to share their personal experiences and offer expert advice about maintaining an active lifestyle to keep their mental and cognitive health in check.
Read what these caregivers and experts had to say:
Ketan Parmar, a forensic psychiatrist at ClinicSpots, says it is important to find out what activities your loved one likes to do and incorporate them into their daily life:
“Ask them about their favorite ways to stay active, such as gardening, dancing, or walking around the neighborhood. This will give them a sense of joy and accomplishment while helping them stay physically and mentally healthy.”
Parmar adds that caregivers can help people with Alzheimer’s disease stay active by creating a regular exercise schedule and making sure their loved one sticks to it. He offers these tips to help stay on track:
“Break up activities into shorter periods. Short, 10-15 minute bursts of activity throughout the day can be more effective than one long session as it helps patients maintain focus and stay motivated.
Track progress. Writing daily activities in a journal or calendar can help caregivers monitor their loved one’s progress and adjust the plan if necessary.
Make it fun. Choose activities your loved one will enjoy, such as swimming or gardening. This will make it easier for them to stay motivated and engaged in their physical activities.
Reward them. Positive reinforcement is a great way to encourage your loved ones to stick to their exercise plan, so reward them with compliments, treats or small gifts after each session.”
He also offers these tips to protect your loved one from injury and physical burnout:
“Start slow. Don’t jump right into intense exercise. Start with low-impact activities and gradually increase the intensity over time as your loved one’s fitness improves.
Don’t push too hard. It’s important to track your loved ones’ progress to make sure they’re not pushing themselves too hard. If they show signs of fatigue or become short of breath, take a break or change the activity.
Wear appropriate clothing. Make sure your loved one is wearing loose clothing that allows them to move freely and comfortably. Additionally, make sure their shoes fit properly and provide enough support for their feet when walking or running.
Use assistive devices. Assistive devices such as walkers, canes, or wheelchairs may be necessary to keep your loved one balanced and safe. Make sure assistive devices are in good condition and provide adequate support for their needs.”
Caregiver Shar (@Sharnona621 on Instagram) gets creative in her approach to keeping her loved one active:
“I try to get her to the local senior center for socialization and take her to a group of ladies’ bible study dinner weekly. It keeps her moving when she cooperates and feels like going. Often I just say, ‘It’s time to get ready’ instead of asking if she feels like going. If she has a choice, she will go back to sleep in her cozy bed instead.”
Isaac Robertson, a personal trainer and the co-founder of Total Shape, offers some safety tips for your loved one’s daily exercise routine:
“It’s important to start slow and gradually increase the intensity of exercise over time. Caregivers should also ensure that the person with Alzheimer’s disease is properly hydrated and adequately rested before engaging in physical activity. Additionally, it’s important to monitor for signs of physical exhaustion or discomfort and adjust the exercise routine as necessary to prevent injury.”
He says it’s important that your loved one’s structured routine incorporates physical activities they enjoy:
“It’s important to involve the person with Alzheimer’s disease in the decision-making and find activities they enjoy. Whether taking a walk, doing light resistance training, or participating in a group fitness class, it’s important to make exercise a fun and enjoyable experience.
As a caregiver, I always join my loved one during exercise to encourage and motivate them to stay active. Caregivers should be patient and supportive, assisting when necessary and praising the person for their efforts.”
For people with low or no mobility, Robertson says there are still many ways to engage in physical activity:
“Examples include chair exercises, resistance band training, and yoga or tai chi. Caregivers can also encourage gentle stretching and range-of-motion exercises to help maintain flexibility and prevent muscle atrophy.”
He reminds caregivers that many daily activities can be modified to include gentle exercise:
“Doing household chores such as laundry or sweeping can be turned into a light workout by incorporating squats or lunges. Taking the dog for a walk can be an enjoyable way to get fresh air and light exercise. Playing simple games such as catch or balloon volleyball can also be a fun way to stay active.”
Caregiver Kat Verdi (@CaregiverCoach_KatVerdi on Instagram) says the best way for your loved one to maintain an active lifestyle is by going back to what activities or sports they enjoyed. She shares an activity she modified for her loved one:
“One of the easiest and my personal favorite activities that [my uncle] participated in was chair stretching. Three simple moves: I stood behind [him] with a 1lb exercise ball, and his role was to hand it to me from over his head and to the left and right three times. Then, to make things more engaging, I would call out the direction the ball should be coming from (left, right, top, etc.). Very engaging and a good workout for both of us!”
Jennifer Drake is an account executive at United Disabilities Services. She urges caregivers to make physical activity a simple addition to their loved one’s everyday routine:
“Create a small, realistic activity schedule, as you want them to do as much as possible on their own. Break each activity into simple, easy-to-follow steps. Create a simplified exercise routine – [things like] chair movements, rubber band stretches, and using cans as light weights, just to name a few. You don’t want them to get frustrated because they are not completing everything you have for them.”
Drake suggests the following activities around the home to keep a loved one active and engaged: Adult coloring, puzzles, word searches, trivia, indoor gardening, cooking and baking, knitting and crocheting, crafting, and going for walks. Daily chores can become physical activities, like running errands, setting the table, folding, and putting away laundry.
Joan DiPaola, a certified dementia instructor and dementia care specialist at CareOne in Paramus, Harmony Village, says caregivers can empower loved ones to have a regular and active schedule by giving them choices:
“Caregivers should provide two choices and allow them to pick what they want to do. Providing options can lead to an improved mood state and lessen the feelings of being controlled or losing independence. Additionally, the caregiver can offer assistance to their loved one, rather than completing the task for them as a way to promote independence.”
DiPaola reminds caregivers that activities focused on cognitive engagement are also important:
“Activities like counting and sorting coins can be an option for those to see how much money they have saved. For those who enjoy cooking, tasks can be modified like stirring the batter, rolling out dough, or pouring measured ingredients into a bowl.”
Caregiver Joanne De Rubeis from Gold Cross Caregiver Support urges caregivers to get outside:
“Spending time outdoors provides a wide array of sensory stimulation and benefits…with the sounds of birds chirping, the feeling of a breeze or the warmth of the sun on the skin is a beautiful feeling for all of us. Memories may be activated through the smells of fresh grass or certain flowers. Activities such as bird watching, walking, cutting flowers or gardening engage a wide variety of senses and can help a person to relax and connect.”
Oakmont Management Groups Memory Care Director Megan Leone, CDP, says knowing who the person is as an individual is crucial to providing a successful schedule and routine for physical activity:
“Creating a program around who they are means they can be the best versions of themselves. The more information and details we know about their lives, [the more we can] create a toolbox of redirection techniques to create a foundation of trust and respect.”
Music is Leone’s favorite resource for “creating movement” for people with all mobility levels:
“Listening to our favorite pieces of music can create joy. Some will dance and sing, but others may close their eyes and enjoy the music; often, when they do, they will begin to tap their toes on the ground to the beat or even sway.”
She says how an exercise is modified will likely depend on how the individual is doing on that day and what phase they may be in the progression of their disease:
“It’s important to give the person with Alzheimer’s the opportunity to maintain their dignity and independence throughout any task. For example, laundry can be an overwhelming task for anyone; it’s our mission to make it purposeful instead of giving them the entire task, allowing them to sort the items by color or folding smaller pieces of clothing and gauge how they are doing from there.”
Leone shares one of her favorite modified exercises she created as a memory care director:
“It was for a woman who dedicated her life to her children. She was a housewife and loved to express herself through giving back to her community. She never wanted to participate in larger group activities but always was on the go and seeking purpose. She was adamant [about] keeping a tidy environment, so we made her a caddy of supplies that were safe for her to use and asked her for her help. She dusted and cleaned her room and reached high and low using her love and body to give back and provide a purpose.”
She reminds caregivers that their health matters, too — mental and physical:
“As a caregiver, our mission is to provide meaningful care to those in need. Often, caregivers forget to take care of themselves, which creates a snowball effect of poor body mechanics, possible injury, and burnout. Taking time to take care of ourselves while we take care of our residents is the key to our success. When we encourage our residents to hydrate, during ‘cheers,’ take a drink of water. People with Alzheimer’s match the energy we, as caregivers, bring with us; they reflect our actions, and when we are stressed, it can increase behaviors that create an overstimulating environment.
As caregivers, your best resource is your team. Never feel the need to take on a task alone. It’s important to acknowledge and know how we feel personally and ask for help when needed.”
Caregivers: Remember that your mental and physical health directly impacts that of the person you’re caring for. For more tips, advice, and resources on prioritizing self-care and avoiding burnout directly from the caregiving community, check out this article.