Reduce your dementia risk and improve your ability to de-stress by doing some regular exercise. Christina Macdonald explains why it’s good for you and how it can help you be a better carer
Most of us know that exercise is good for heart health and weight management, but it’s also good for the brain. It’s not only good for clearing your mind, helping you solve problems and de-stress, it has recently been found to offer benefits for those looking to reduce dementia risk.
Research presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto in July this year showed that exercise reduces shrinkage of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that deals with memory and thinking. It also showed that exercise could thicken the cortex, the part of the brain that deals with our consciousness.
Those in a 12-week study who performed 45-minutes of cardiovascular exercise four times a week were shown to have decreased levels of tau, the protein that builds up in the brain that can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition, it could also make you smarter. Professor Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton, believes that exercise will increase levels of alertness in the brain. One Harvard Medical School Expert also believes that the endorphins released when we exercise can improve our ability to concentrate.
Regular exercise like running has been proven to boost our mood, helping to alleviate depression. The charity Mind recommends regular exercise as a solution for mild to moderate depression.
As for how it specifically reduces dementia risk, several studies looking at aerobic exercise like swimming, cycling, jogging or running have shown that the increased heart rate from these activities can lead to improvements in thinking and memory. Alzheimer’s Society says that combining the results of 11 studies shows that regular aerobic exercise can significantly reduce dementia risk by around 30 per cent and Alzheimer’s disease by around 45 per cent.
One study that looked at the health habits of 2000 men in Wales followed them for 35 years. Of the five behaviours that were monitored (regular exercise, not smoking, moderate drinking, maintaining a healthy body weight and following a healthy diet), exercise had the greatest effect in reduced dementia risk.
Break it up
If you’re caring for a person with dementia, you may think you don’t have time to exercise. But you don’t have to join a gym or go out for a long run in order to benefit. Regular activity such as brisk walking, swimming or cycling at least three to four times a week will help. Even a brisk walk around the block will be beneficial and breaking up exercise into manageable chunks is fine. You could do three lots of ten minutes throughout the day or two lots of 15 minutes rather than cramming it all into one session. This means that, as a carer, you’d be able to get out of the house and take some brief time for yourself to unwind and clear your head.
Here are some top tips for starting an exercise plan:
- Get the all-clear from your GP if it’s been some time since you did any activity.
- Build up gradually, especially if you’ve not exercised for a long time. If you want to run or jog, start with a run / walk at first. Run for one minute, walk for one minute and repeat. In time, the walking intervals will be shorter and you’ll be able to run for longer.
- Find a form of exercise you enjoy that you look forward to – walking in scenic areas, dancing, swimming, an exercise class – anything that motivates you.
- Try to do it at the same time each of day, so that you have a regular routine and are less likely to miss sessions.
- Enlist a training buddy or friend to support and encourage you – you’ll be more likely to do it on days when you feel tired.
- If you’re not sure of exercise technique, book some sessions with a personal trainer and make sure you’re confident about the exercises before doing them on your own.
- If you want to use exercise to clear your mind, try yoga, Pilates, meditation or swimming.
- Don’t mistake mental fatigue for physical tiredness. Once you get out and start moving, oxygen will move more freely around the body and you’ll feel more energised. Exercise will also help you sleep better.
- Avoid anything too strenuous at first like high intensity interval training, group cycling classes (also called Spin) or high intensity aerobics. Start with lower intensity exercise like walking, cycling or yoga.