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Boosting Your Brain To Slow Cognitive Decline: Why Exercise Is Vital Therapy for Dementia Patients

It is commonly known that exercise can help improve metabolic and cardiovascular health and wellness. When it comes to the health and wellness of our cognitive functions, exercise is not always considered, when in fact, it very much should be. Exercise is largely important to brain health in order to help retain memory and decrease age-related cognitive decline. For dementia patients, regular exercise should assume a vital role in their treatment.

Whether you prefer aerobic or resistance training, both have their own unique ways of restoring cognitive function and slowing the decline. So lace up your shoes for a walk, pick up some weights for strength training, or head outside for a morning of gardening. Either way, you’ll be benefiting your brain and body simultaneously.

A group of senior citizens are exercising together to create a safe and fun workout routine to help improve their brain health and reduce cognitive decline.
Great minds together help create stronger minds!

Boosting Blood Flow to Boost Brain Heath

As we get our hearts pumping, we send oxygenated blood to every end of our bodies, including our brains. Aerobics are considered highly effected exercises for dementia patients and viewed as a potential preventative technique with the idea that as blood is pumping in, cognitive function is being maintained.

However, individuals that already have MCI (mild cognitive impairment), aerobic exercise can have the opposite effect and still deliver the same result. You might be asking yourself; how could this be? According to a recent study in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, people with MCI’s who walked on a treadmill at a moderate intensity saw that the areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s showed reduced blood flow. Participants of the same study with healthy brains saw results of increased blood flow in the same areas. What is more interesting is that at the end of the experiment, both groups scored significantly higher on their cognitive tests. What does this tell us? There is a possibility that during the early stages of memory loss the brain switches to a “crisis mode” and avert more blood flow regularly into those specific areas of the brain in order to compensate. Exercise then would be a way to regulate the response and prevent the overcompensation.

A Strong Body Creates A Strong Mind

Just like aerobics, weightlifting has similar benefits to the brain. A study that compared the effects of regular stretching routines and weight training found that the individuals who participated in the weight training over a span of six months experience increased improved cognitive function for up to a year following the study. Unfortunately, those who participated in the stretching only routines experienced a decline in their cognitive function. Here is what’s even more interesting; study results showed that those in the strength training group who increased their strength gains also performed better on cognitive tests.

In another study, weight training has been shown to outperform the results of cognitive function compared to aerobics and balance-oriented activity. In three different study groups (aerobics, weight-training, balance/stretching) women, ages 70-80, were divided into regular exercise groups that met two times a week for six months. The study results showed that those who were in the weight-training group had the highest scores on all test. These tests included measurements of attention, memory and high-order brain functionality.

Two senior citizen utilize free weights for exercise in order to improve their brain health and reduce cognitive decline.
A strong body creates a strong mind!

Exercises for Dementia Patients

Creating an exercise routine, especially for patients in the early stages of dementia, may encourage independence and prolonged quality of life for a better future by creating better cognitive function. If you have health restrictions or limitations that make it unsafe or overly difficult to start simple aerobics like walking on a treadmill or using dumbbells for weight training, check out these alternative exercises that you can utilize to start your exercise routine.

Restorative yoga

This is a low intensity form of yoga that is focused on breathing, flexibility, gentle movements, and posture. For individuals who have lost mobility or have lower body injuries, chair yoga is a great alternative. Yoga is a fantastic way to help improve balance and flexibility which can also help reduce the risk of falling. Learn more about the risk factors of falling for senior citizens here.

Aquatic Exercise

Due to water’s buoyancy, workouts performed in the pool mean less impact on bones and joints. Aquatic exercise is a great alternative for individuals who are looking to improve their aerobics endurance and create low impact on their body.

Dance-Based Fitness

Besides being a fun and interactive fitness exercise, dancing can also

challenge the mind and memory. Often times, these classes need participants to remember different steps and interact with partners. Dance exercises are a great way to be physically active, build aerobic fitness and be social!

Tai Chi

Tai Chi is a relaxing, low impact form of exercise that has been shown to help improve sleep quality, muscle strength, energy levels, balance, and flexibility. This ancient study of energy flow and movement has been known to increase longevity and decrease inflammation.

Avoid Injury, Increase enjoyment

Getting into any type of regular exercise routine can be difficult for most individuals. Injury and pain can restrict movement and decrease consistency, and sometimes, we just lack motivation. There are, however, a few precautions you can take to avoid getting injured and help increase your overall enjoyment:

  • First, please talk with your doctor before beginning any exercise routine if you have MCI or any stages of dementia.

  • Go at your own pace. Start slow and let your body adapt to the physical exertion. Overexertion can likely lead to injury and cause you to feel burned out, therefore decreasing the adherence to the routine.

  • Consistency is key! The more you adhere to your exercise routine, the sooner you’ll see results. It always feels good when you can notice positive physical changes in your body (increased muscle tone, loss of weight), but the feeling of improved cognitive function can lead to increased and elevated moods mentally.

  • Learn from a professional. Don’t let the idea of joining a gym with younger crowds intimated or discourage you from adhering to a routine. Utilize a personal trainer to assist in creating different and fun exercises that fit in your routine to keep yourself interested and safe. Remember, resistance training has highly positive effects on brain functionality, but in order to get the desired output, proper technique is required.

  • Listen to your body! If you find yourself experiencing rapid or irregular heartbeat (abnormal than an elevated heart rate that comes with exertion and exercise), breathing too hard, or having joint pain, take some time to stop, rest and cool down.

A senior citizen is working with a personal trainer for aerobic exercise.
Boost your heart and boost your mind!

Starting light and slow to begin a routine is the best way to maintain consistency and avoid injury. By considering exercise as a positive and fun activity (versus being a drag and associated with negative feelings of being tired and sore) you can begin to create enjoyment around physical activities. Next time, instead of telling yourself you don’t want to exercise (because it’s hard, you are tired, you don’t want to feel sore, etc.), create positive mantra’s and intentions before you begin. Tell yourself that you are thankful your body can move as much as it can and you look forward to helping it move better, and for longer. Remind yourself of the positive results and long-term positive feelings, both mentally and physically.

While the data is not entirely conclusive for patients with advanced dementia, and are typically based on studying the prevention of dementia and further cognitive decline for individuals with MCI, the results are positive indicators that exercise is healthy for brain function. Therefore, exercise should not be overlooked as a vital therapeutic strategy.

The Heart-Head Connection

According to, in a study done of 716 people, average age of 82 years, those who were in the bottom 10% in daily physical activity (the least active) were two-times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease as compared to those in the top 10% (the most active).

Coincidentally, many chronic conditions known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes) are also known to increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

There is no known medication that are proved to protect individuals against the effects of dementia, but there are proven study’s that exercise and brain function correlate. Don’t wait until you notice a decline in neurological and memory function to begin a regular exercise routine. Start today; reduce your risk of declining brain function and start feeling better overall!

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