Critter Corner: Exercise for Seniors with Dementia?

Dear Angel,

My mom has always been into fitness. Every day for years, she would take a mile walk in the morning around the lake. She was diagnosed with dementia a few years ago. I know she would love to continue to exercise. But, now I am afraid she will lose her way. What are some fitness activities that people with dementia can do to reap the benefits of exercise and stay safe? 

Inga Oodshape
Dear Inga,
It may not be easy to resume a safe exercise program with your mother who suffers from dementia. But by gradually working safe, simple and customizable fitness activities into her daily routine, the benefits will slowly build and accrue, for an overall enhancement to her well-being.
You are right that it is a good idea to find some exercises that your mother can do, while staying safe. Not only is exercise a good way to stay fit. Exercises for dementia have been proven to elevate the moods of persons with dementia, reducing the depression, anxiety, and aggression sufferers may experience.
One obvious option for your mother would be to have someone accompany her on her daily walk around the lake. Perhaps a friend, relative, or neighbor would like to get some exercise and welcome walking with your mom. If that is not feasible, then here are some suggested alternative exercises:
Stationary Bikes: These are helpful for cardiovascular fitness and a comfortable way to exercise. Recumbent bikes, which offer a lower seated profile, are especially convenient for this purpose and typically better for people any kind of back problems.
On-Property Walks: While it’s never a good idea to allow a person with dementia to wander, having them take walks around the yard is a great form of exercise. Just be sure to stay with them if they can access areas without a fence.
Basic Stretching: Stretching is an essential, yet often overlooked, element of physical fitness. There are multiple practitioners with helpful DVDs and streaming videos offering pain-free stretching routines, often focused specifically on seniors.  The Classical Stretch program by Miranda Esmonde-White (—which is broadcast on PBS—is one highly recommended regimen.
Tai Chi: This Chinese defensive martial art offers significant health benefits and greatly improves balance.
Water Exercise: The buoyancy of water makes it a great low-impact setting for exercises for dementia, while also providing the natural resistance needed to make muscle gains. Local area senior centers, the YMCA, the JCC, and private gyms often offer special programs for seniors.
Simple Strength Training: Your mother doesn’t necessarily need to lift weights, but some form of strength training is helpful to maintain ability and stave-off muscle atrophy. If small dumbbells are too much for her to lift, try using canned goods instead. Weight machines may also help, since they are relatively safe and simple to use, as opposed to free weights, which require constant supervision.
Gardening: Although it can be a fairly strenuous activity that provides good exercise, gardening is also both relaxing and stimulating. Fenced therapy gardens are especially helpful for dementia patients.
Low-Impact Aerobics: Both live classes and instructional videos can offer a wealth of aerobics routines, and this is a good activity for both the person with dementia and the caregiver to participate.
Dancing: This activity may offer both exercise and mental stimulation, while also providing a fun social setting. Senior centers and clubs often hold dances, as well as your local dance instruction studio. Again, this is an activity that both the dementia sufferer and caregiver can enjoy.
Hope some of these ideas help your mother continue to safely enjoy exercise!
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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.

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