Physical exercise and dementia

Physical exercise is essential for maintaining good blood flow to the brain and may encourage new brain cell growth and survival, according to experts from Dementia Australia. The information below provided by Dementia Australia outlines the role that physical exercise can play in reducing the risk of developing dementia and the benefits it offers to people with dementia. It is important to seek advice from your doctor on what type and intensity of exercise is best suited to you.


Can physical exercise reduce the risk of developing dementia? Can physical exercise help people with dementia?


Physical exercise is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, contributing to general fitness, muscle control, coordination and a sense of wellbeing. Physical exercise is also essential in optimising cardiovascular function and may stimulate brain cell growth and survival. Exercise is therefore one of the factors researchers are considering for its role in reducing the risk of developing dementia and for the benefits it offers to people with dementia. Of course, you should always consult your doctor before starting any exercise program, particularly where there are other illnesses or disabilities to consider.


What role does physical exercise play in reducing the risk of dementia?


Research into the potential for physical exercise to reduce the risk of dementia is continuing. While we do not yet have definitive evidence from randomised trials, several studies have found that physical activity in early, mid and late life is associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and dementia. The benefits of exercise are clear when considering other factors associated with the risk of developing dementia.


People who exercise regularly are less likely to experience heart disease and stroke, both factors that are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. Exercise is also important in reducing the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity, all of which are risk factors for dementia. Several prospective studies (where large groups of people are followed up over time) have found that higher levels of physical exercise are associated with less cognitive decline in older people. Other studies have found that people who exercise experience a slower loss of brain tissue as they age. Regular aerobic exercise, including walking, in sessions of at least 30 minutes has been found to be beneficial for cognitive health.


All exercise is worth doing. Why this is so is still being studied, but it is thought that exercise may improve blood flow to the brain, reduce cardiovascular risk factors and possibly stimulate nerve cell growth and survival.


What is the right exercise?


For general physical health, research has shown that three types of exercise should be included in your regular routine:


  • Sustained aerobic exercise – exercise performed at a moderate level of intensity over a long period of time. It improves general physical health and increases blood flow to the brain. Such exercise can gradually be increased as fitness improves, but at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days of the week is recommended. Examples of aerobic exercise include brisk walking, dancing, jogging, bicycling and swimming.
  • Strength, weight or resistance training – involves exercising muscles against an external force that provides resistance to the movement. The benefits of strength training include increased muscle, tendon and ligament strength, bone density, flexibility, tone, metabolic rate and postural support. Resistance training can include squeezing rubber balls, using elastic resistance bands and lifting weights.
  • Flexibility and balance training – exercises to strengthen the spine and supporting muscles and improve coordination and balance. Such exercises can be incorporated into an aerobic exercise program. Exercise such as bending and stretching, tai chi, yoga and Pilates can all help with flexibility and balance. Matt Osman, Exercise Physiologist at the The Vario Clinic at Southern Plus’ Health and Wellness Centre explains the importance of these different types of activity.


“Each of these exercise recommendations serve different purposes. I encourage all patients to treat aerobic exercise as the number one priority in a physical activity regimen. Most importantly, it offsets risk of all-cause mortality, irrespective of increased BMI (i.e. being overweight or obese). In relation to dementia, aerobic exercise positively impacts cardiovascular risk factors linked to dementia and modulates sleep where neuronal growth and repair heavily takes place. “Resistance training is increasingly important as we age, our body’s function naturally declines from midlife for a multitude of reasons, changes in hormone balance are a prime example, especially for women.


Natural decline can be greatly reduced through exercise. Wastage of the muscles (atrophy) is one of the primary issues leading to joint dysfunction, leaving many older Australians experiencing pain and becoming physically inactive. Regular resistance training aids in averting this whole scenario.


“Flexibility and balance training support keep the body supple and mobile. Staying mobile through our joints by participating in flexibility exercise is a simple and often a relaxing process which can improve joint function. Balance training is particularly important to maintain confidence in how we go about our daily, physical and non-physical activities.


Maintenance and efforts to improve balance will keep you confident to stay mobile and participate in regular exercise.” For more information about how exercise can benefit you, please contact our exercise physiologists at the Southern Plus Health and Wellness Centre on 08 6424 7443.

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