Reviewed by Dr. Richard Foxx, MD
Dementia and exercise may be much more closely related than you think. Yes, you’ve heard that physical activity can improve cardiovascular and metabolic health, but when it comes to cognitive function, movement might be off your radar. It shouldn’t be. Exercise plays a major role in overall brain health, and is a very useful tool to help retain memory and delay or treat age-related cognitive decline.
Studies have shown that a variety of exercise modalities can boost brain health in people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is a precursor to dementia. It can also act as a preventive tool to maintain mental health and dexterity. Exercise can increase memory, attention, and higher-order brain functions like conflict resolution. Furthermore, exercise seems to adapt to individual specifications, working to improve conditions regardless of current brain health.
Both aerobic and resistance training have the ability to restore brain functionality in very unique ways. So whether you want to go out for a walk or pick up some weights for strength gains, you’ll be benefiting your brain as well as your body. Dementia and physical activity are extremely closely related, and exercises for dementia patients should assume an important role in treatment.
What Research Says about Dementia and Physical Activity
Although the majority of research indicating exercise’s impact on cognitive decline utilizes aerobic activity, there are more studies coming forth showing that resistance training can benefit brain health as well.
- Aerobic activity is focused primarily on stimulating the cardiovascular, or circulatory, system. It includes activities like running, walking, cycling, dancing, or swimming.
- Resistance training, also called weight training, focuses on building and strengthening muscle.
Both modalities have profound benefits for overall health, including age-related cognitive decline.
Aerobic Activity Controls Blood Flow to Boost Brain Health
Aerobic activity gets a lot of attention when it comes to exercises for dementia. Its potential preventative techniques revolve around sending nutrient-rich, oxygenated blood to areas of the brain responsible for a number of cognitive functions. The hypothesis is that the blood gets pumped in and function is maintained.
But a recent study is showing it doesn’t always work that way. In fact, for people with MCI, it can have the opposite effect but deliver the same result!
A recent study published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease showed that when people with MCI walked on a treadmill at moderate intensity, areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer’s showed reduced blood flow. At the same time, participants with healthy brains had more blood rushing to those areas of the brain. But it gets even more interesting: both groups scored significantly better on cognitive tests at the end of the 12-week experiment!
How did this happen? It’s possible that the brain switches into a natural “crisis mode” in the early stages of memory loss, causing it to pump more blood into specific areas of the brain to compensate. Exercise seems to regulate that response and prevent overcompensation.
Beefing up Your Body and Your Brain
Similar benefits have been found using barbells. One study compared the effects of weight training to stretching routines, and found that participants who lifted weights only twice per week for six months experienced improved cognition up to a year following the study.
The participants in the stretching group, however, experienced declines in cognition. Furthermore, the degree of cognitive improvement in the exercise groups seemed to correlate with strength gains: the stronger the individual got, the better they performed on cognitive tests.
Another study showed that weight training can outperform aerobic and balance-oriented activity. Looking at women between the ages of 70 and 80 with MCI, participants were divided into a weight-training group, aerobic group, or group focused on balance and stretching. Each group exercised twice a week for six months, and at the conclusion of the study, the resistance training group scored the best on tests measuring attention, memory, and high-order brain functions.
Exercises for dementia patients, especially those in the early stages, may help encourage independence and better cognitive function for a better future.
Most of the data that exists is targeted towards people looking to potentially prevent dementia or those with MCI. Studies are, so far, rather inconclusive when it comes to patients with full-blown dementia. There is some research showing beneficial results and others showing no benefit for people in the more advanced stages of the disease.
Exercise Tips for Brain Health
So it turns out that physical exercise might be far better for brain health than activities like puzzles, crosswords, or mind-games on Lumosity. But are there any specific exercises that can improve cognitive function and memory? Not really. As long as you’re doing some form of aerobic or resistance training—or preferably, both—you should experience benefits.
However, there are four factors to consider:
- Frequency: Research indicates exercising two to four times per week helps people with MCI. If you’re weight training, do not perform on consecutive days (at the beginner’s level).
- Duration: Exercising in 30- to 45-minute blocks has shown benefits for cognition.
- Intensity: Moderate and vigorous intensity levels can benefit brain health, memory, and overall cognitive function. For strength, working at about 80% (three to six reps per set) has proven effective.
- Combination: For overall health, try lifting weights two to three days per week and doing aerobic activity four to five days per week. Do aerobic activity on the days between weight training.
Because of the correlation between strength and cognition for individuals with MCI, it’s worthwhile to focus on compound movements that encourage overall strength. Two exercises to include in your routine are:
Best Strength Exercises for Brain Health
Squats can be performed with kettlebells, resistance bands, dumbbells, barbells, or body weight.
Step 1: To start, stand up straight with your feet about shoulder-width apart, facing slightly outwards. Keep your chest up, head facing straight ahead with shoulders down and pulled back.
Step 2: With feet firmly planted on the ground and weight evenly distributed across them, break slowly at the knees and hips to begin your descent. Make sure your heels remain in contact with the ground and back remains straight, bracing with your core. Knees should be tracking over your feet, or curved inwards.
Step 3:When you get to the bottom—ideally the angle of the knees will be 90 degrees—push down into the floor with weight evenly distributed through the feet.
Great for upper-body strength, a chest press recruits muscles in the core, chest, shoulders, and arms. You can perform one as a push-up, or with dumbbells, barbells, or resistance bands. The key to any method of chest press is stability.
Step 1: If you’re lying on a bench, you’ll want to have your feet firmly planted on the floor and your shoulders and butt planted on the bench. There will be a natural arch to the back, and that’s fine.
Step 2: Pull your shoulders down and back, looking at the bar above you—it should align with your eyes.
Step 3: Extend arms and unrack the bar with a grip about shoulder-width apart, making sure shoulders remain pinned back and down.
Step 4: Tuck your arms slightly as you lower the bar to the lower third of your chest before pushing it back up. The trajectory of the bar should come slightly towards your head, with the finishing position above the upper/mid portion of the chest.
Exercise Precautions for People with MCI or Early Signs of Dementia
Although it’s good for you, exercise is not always necessarily safe. Therefore, there are a few rules that you should pay attention to in order to avoid injury and increase enjoyment:
- Go at your own pace. Overexertion can lead to injury and impact adherence, so start slow and allow the body to adapt.
- Learn from a professional. Resistance training is an acquired skill where safety and proper technique are required for desired output. If you have never weight-trained or have not been active or lifted in a long time, consult with a fitness professional.
- Listen to your body. If you’re breathing too hard or experiencing rapid heartbeat or joint pain, stop and take a rest.
- Talk to your doctor before beginning any exercise routine.
- Inform your trainer of any physical limitations/medications/physical health conditions you have.
Moreover, if you’re experiencing symptoms of MCI like frequently misplacing things, trouble finding your way around familiar environments, increasing forgetfulness, or poor judgment, consider:
- Carrying a cellphone and identification when exercising outdoors.
- Removing hazardous objects (cords, slippery rugs, breakable items) from your workout space before exercising indoors.
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