Introduction to Alzheimer's Disease and Exercise
Sharon Arkin, PsyD
Two older women are painting.
You won't find articles in popular magazines that discuss the benefits of exercise for persons with Alzheimer's Disease. In fact, as of February 2001, only two articles in professional journals documented the multiple benefits of physical fitness training for non-institutionalized early- to moderate-stage persons with Alzheimer's Disease. The author's Alzheimer's Disease Rehab by Students program (Arkin, 1999) showed dramatic gains in physical fitness and mood, maintenance of function in multiple language measures, and a slower than typical decline in mental status after a year of exercise. An Italian research group (Palleschi, Vetta, Degennaro, Idone, Sottosanti, Gianni, & Marigliano, 1996) found a significant improvement on four cognitive measures after three months of aerobic exercise.
Yet, persons with Alzheimer's Disease have the same health problems and emotional needs as everybody else and derive the same benefits from a regular exercise program as their peers who do not have the disease. Plus, they can derive a benefit that is unique to their situation: the ability to gain skill and show regular improvement in physical fitness at a time when they are losing skills in every other arena of life. Such a tangible gain can be a tremendous source of pride, both for the person with Alzheimer's and for his or her caregivers.
The recommendations for exercise programming cited in this paper build on the existing extensive body of knowledge about exercise and the elderly by contributing the experience gained in four years of managing an exercise-based rehabilitation program for community-dwelling persons with Alzheimer's Disease at the University of Arizona (www.u.arizona.edu/~sarkin/elderrehab.html).
For a review of published studies on the benefits of exercise programming among nursing home residents with more severe dementia, see Bonner and Cousins (1996). The various studies they cite show that exercise reduces the frequency of unwanted behaviors such as wandering, pulling at clothing, making repetitive noises, swearing, and aggressive acts, as well as improving communication and social participation.
|An older man who has Alzheimer's Disease is exercising with a staff person|
So, persons with Alzheimer's need someone to get them into a program and motivate them to stay with it. (Don't we all?) If you are a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer's and are frail or in poor health yourself, you're probably not a good candidate for motivating and maintaining your partner in an exercise program. But such a program could benefit you as much as your spouse. Read on and you'll get some ideas for making such a routine possible for your partner and you.
If you are a son or daughter of a person with dementia, you could be the catalyst for making an exercise regimen part of your parent(s)' life. Instead of (or tacked onto) a weekly meal together or a trip to church or the mall, why not several trips to a fitness center? You and your spouse and parent(s) could all work out together, taking turns spotting each other, and all benefiting from the increased activity. If you really are too busy to make such a commitment, advertise in your local high school or college newspaper and hire a student to do it. Pay them the same or a bit more than the local fast-food restaurants and they'll be happy for a job that brings satisfaction and looks impressive on a resume.