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Increasing Brain Function Through Movement and Exercise

Two elderly people holding light weights while walking on a sidewalk surrounded by green grass

Studies have shown that those living with dementia or other cognitive diagnoses can increase brain function through movement and exercise. The benefits of exercise (weights, cardiovascular, stretching, functional) have been long recognized as therapeutic for the physical health and well-being of individuals. The cognitive benefits have come to light in recent years as dementia is studied more substantially.


Physical Activity and Overall Brain Health

Movement of the body plays a major role in overall brain health, and can be supportive of the ability to retain memory or delay further progress of cognitive decline. The benefits are also noted in dexterity, equilibrium, stamina, mobility, and functionality. These benefits can prolong the independence and self-reliance in those with dementia. Falling episodes and injuries may decrease, also.


It has been discovered that consistent physical activity/movement/exercise can lead to higher brain function and particularly affects the size of the hippocampus, which is part of the limbic system. The hippocampus plays a large responsibility in consolidation of information from the short-term to long-term memory. Exercising can encourage more mobility and involvement with those living with dementia. It can benefit the cardiovascular system by increasing circulation and prevent muscle wasting. Movement can also aid in relaxation, sense of calm, and can be an aide to good sleep, as well as decreasing anxiety and stress.


Exercise for Dementia Patients

Many types of exercises may be implemented to benefit those living with dementia – the type of exercise or movement will depend on the abilities of client to perform the activity in a safe manner. The types of exercise are varied and offer differing results and benefits:

  • Aerobic: increases oxygen rich blood to the brain which increases brain function. This also decreases production of certain proteins in brain that may increase the effects of dementia.

  • Weight training: increases strength and may be a better choice for those that have limited mobility or abilities to perform cardiovascular exercise – improves mobility and balance.

  • Functional: this is similar to Occupational Therapy in that it is designed to help the dementia patient with performance of everyday activities such as personal care and quality of life.

  • Flexibility: this activity can be structured to address the abilities of the patient and will improve range of motion in joints and can improve dementia-related stiffness in lower back.

These forms of exercise can be adapted to each individual’s interest and capabilities. Those that have gait abnormalities can perform seated exercises or lifting light weights that will still incorporate movement which may suit them better. The frequency, duration, intensity of exercises, or activities may be formulated individually.


How Exercise Affects the Brain

Dementia causes the brain function to slowly decrease and it seems to take the quality of life with it. It not only effects memory and reasoning, but effects language and behavior. Exercise generates fine motor control movements which may increase the independence of those suffering with dementia. All that being said, the pure focus of movement may increase the sense of purpose and well-being with those who have dementia. Exercise may cause them to feel that they have accomplished an important task and gives them a feeling of happiness. They may feel a sense of fulfillment and self-reliance. All of these feelings are in short supply with those that live with dementia. Exercise and movement can open the door to greater quality of life for those with dementia, and diminished cognitive abilities!

Sources:

The Best Physical Exercises for Dementia Patients by Joy King, M.S. July, 8 2011: Healthfully.com Alzheimer’s Society: Exercise and Mobility with Dementia

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