Getting started with exercise as a person with dementia

It is important to consider the age, abilities and type of dementia someone has, as well as their needs and preferences, when they undertake physical exercise.

Physical activity and exercise
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You might have your own favourite ways to exercise. If you already take part in certain sports or other activities, continue with them for as long as you can. You may need to adapt how you do them at some point.  

However, having dementia doesn’t mean you need to stop doing what you enjoy. For example, in a fitness class, you might be more comfortable missing out certain moves or going at a slightly slower pace. 

Think about activities you have enjoyed in your life, and whether you might like to try any of those again. Being more active can help you to keep up with your hobbies. This might be walking to watch local sporting events or visiting favourite places. Going for walks with friends or family members can give you the time and opportunity to talk about things in your life that are important to you.  

Exercising and underlying health conditions 

If you have other health conditions, it’s especially important to talk to a health professional beforehand. It doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do any activity – in some cases it may even help to be active. 

But before starting any new activity speak to your GP, a physiotherapist or another healthcare professional, especially if you have any of the following:

  • heart problems 
  • high blood pressure 
  • unexplained chest pain 
  • dizziness or fainting 
  • bone or joint problems 
  • breathing problems 
  • balance problems 
  • frequent falls

You should only ever exercise as much as you feel able to. If you overdo it, this can be bad for your health. 

Pay attention to your body when doing something active. Stop doing any activity that causes pain or makes you feel unwell, dizzy or short of breath. You should then speak to your GP again. 

Finding movements and exercises that feel right for you 

Each level of activity causes the body to react differently. There are different types of physical activity that will be suitable for different people depending on their ability.

  • Cardiovascular (‘cardio’) exercise is any type of exercise that raises your heart rate. It’s good for improving how your heart and lungs work, as well as other parts of your body that help blood circulate. Aim to do this type of exercise on most days of the week, even if only very lightly. 
  • Weights-based or strength exercises are more focused on making muscles stronger. You can use light weights for this if you prefer, or even household items such as bottles of water or tins of food. It’s a good idea to aim to do these exercises a couple of times a week if you’re able to.   
  • Balance and flexibility exercises help your muscles and joints maintain the movements you need for daily living. These exercises can help you to keep independent for a longer time and help lower the risk of falls.  

When you’re choosing physical activities, try and do a combination of these exercise types if you can. 

Tips for choosing the right physical activity for you

There are many different ways to exercise; these tips can help you find what works for you.

  • Choose activities that you find enjoyable and suitable for your mobility and fitness, in a way that works for you. 
  • Consider your current routines and how you could build more movement or activity into them. For example, use the ad breaks on the television to stand up or march on the spot until the programme starts again. Anything that breaks up long periods of sitting is a good idea.
  • Think about whether you want to do these activities on your own, with a friend, or in a group. If you are exercising alone, it can be a good idea to let someone know where you will be. Keep a mobile phone with you in case of emergencies. You could also look for dementia-friendly groups or classes in your local gyms or leisure centres. 
  • Try different activities to see what works best. You don’t have to set goals or give yourself targets to reach. It’s more important to do activities that you enjoy, and which you can do regularly.   
  • Consider the practicalities of any new activity, such as the cost. Will you need any specific equipment? If you need to travel, how you will get to and from the location? You can also ask at your GP surgery or use our dementia directory to see what’s available locally.  There may be activity groups or places offering different types of exercises available in your area. 

How much physical activity should you do? 

The guidelines set by NHS England suggest that it’s a good idea to aim for around 150 minutes of moderate activity every week. For example, this could be riding a bike or mowing the lawn. Try to do activities that focus on improving strength, balance and flexibility on two or more days a week, if possible. 

Alternatively, if you’re already fairly active, you can aim for 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week, such as running or swimming.  

It is important to only do as much or as little as you feel comfortable with – any movement you add to your day will be beneficial. These recommendations are something to aim for only if you feel able to do so. 

Tips for staying active with mobility issues 

If you have mobility difficulties and are not able to exercise according to the NHS guidance, there are still a number of ways to keep active. It is important to talk to your GP, a physiotherapist or another healthcare professional before starting. 

  • Lie down or sit upright in bed. Keep your legs straight. Point the toes of one of your feet toward you as far as it will go. Then point your toes away from you as far as you can.  Repeat this with your other foot. This exercise can help with flexibility and blood circulation. 
  • Sit on the edge of your bed. Use your hips to shuffle along the edge of the bed, from one end to the other. Stay in a sitting position while doing this. This exercises the muscles needed for standing up from a chair.  
  • To help with balance and posture, try standing up and staying balanced. Hold on to something steady as a support if you need to. This can be done at the same time as you’re doing things round the house, for example the washing up. If this is too easy, try standing on one foot for 10 seconds, but make sure there is something you can hold on to close by in case you need it. 
  • Sit unsupported and upright for a few minutes each day. You could sit on a bed or a seat with no back. This exercise strengthens the stomach and back muscles used to support posture. You might want to ask someone to stay with you for this. 
  • While sitting on a chair, straighten your back and gently twist round to one side. Hold this position for a few seconds and then repeat on the other side. This movement is good for stretching and relaxation.  
  • If you are able to, stand up and move about regularly throughout the day. Moving regularly helps to keep leg muscles strong and maintain good balance. 
  • If you find it difficult to remember the steps needed for each exercise, consider writing them down or printing them out. You can then pin this up somewhere easy to see. 
  • You could use a calendar to mark when you have done the exercises each day too. Speak to your family and friends about any exercise you’re planning. They may be able to help you, for example by giving reminders or finding resources. 

Exercises people with mobility difficulties

The NHS has many other exercises for people with mobility difficulties, including people who use wheelchairs. This includes balance, strength and sitting exercises.

Read more on the NHS website