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22 Jan 2016


You may have heard the expression: ‘You can’t look after someone else if you don’t take care of yourself’. One of the best ways to do this is to find time to exercise. Christina Macdonald explains why it’s so beneficial for carers

I’m going to say something crazy. If you’re caring for a person with dementia, then you need find more time for yourself. Time to allow you to exercise. I know what you’re thinking. ‘She’s got to be kidding!’ If you’re a full-time carer, I know you’ll be very busy. The idea of finding an hour to go to the gym may sound insane. You may think you don’t have the time or the energy to exercise. Bear with me. I’m not suggesting anything too time consuming. I’m recommending that you grasp short blocks of time when you can – 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there – to give yourself a break and clear your head. Once you start moving and the oxygen starts flowing around your body, you’ll find that you actually have more energy.

Good reasons to exercise
Why is exercise so important? You want to keep looking after the person with dementia, so you need to make sure you look after yourself. Exercise is well known for its health boosting benefits. It can help to lower your blood pressure, improve heart and bone health and reduce your risk of developing certain cancers. It’s also the perfect way to reduce stress and boost mental wellbeing. The mental health charity, Mind, says that regular cardiovascular exercise like walking, running, jogging, cycling or swimming can be more effective at treating symptoms of mild to moderate depression than taking antidepressants.

I cared for my mother Hazel, who has vascular dementia, for five years. There were good days and bad days. The bad days were more frequent than the good ones. Some days I wondered how I would cope with the practical demands of caring for mum and the emotional stresses of planning for her future. On a difficult day, I’d go for a run around the block. Even a 20-minute run would clear my head.

The hardest part of caring for a person with dementia is that your mind is in a constant spin. You’re focusing on caring for them in the present, while you grieve for the past, and worry about the future. I honestly believe those regular runs saved me from becoming a wine guzzling alcoholic or curling up into a ball of despair. Sometimes they would help me switch off completely. They were almost meditative – I would count steps, look at the road ahead or count the number of houses in each street. While I was counting houses I wasn’t thinking about my problems.

Solving problems
On some days though, I would run to solve a problem. If a decision needed to be made about mum’s care, I would mull things over while I ran. Running gave me space and clarity to make the right decisions. I felt like I was taking control of the situation. I couldn’t control mum’s dementia, but I could look after my health and therefore provide the best care for mum.

Running also made me calmer, more rational and less stressed. When I got back from a run, I felt much stronger emotionally. This was partly because exercise releases endorphins – feel-good chemicals. They interact with receptors in the brain and reduce perception of pain. They create a feel-good factor, which improves your mood and makes you happier. Just what you need when you’re a full-time carer!

Therapeutic effect
I’m not suggesting that everyone reading this takes up running. A brisk walk around the block will do just fine. Or even 10 minutes of yoga in the living room. Anything you find enjoyable and therapeutic.

That said I strongly believe that anyone can run (regardless of age or fitness level), and the health benefits are endless. Running will reduce your risk of osteoporosis and strengthen joints, tendons and ligaments. It will also reduce your risk of developing dementia by up to 30 per cent.

If you want to give it a try, firstly get the all clear from your GP to start. Invest in a supportive pair of trainers from a specialist running store like Runners Need or Sweatshop. Start with a brisk walk for five minutes and build up gradually. If you’re completely new to it, jog for one minute, walk for one minute, then repeat 4/5 times. Gradually build up to jogging or running for five minutes. As you get fitter, it will get easier, and you will begin to enjoy the mental health benefits that saved my sanity.

But the underlying message here is not about running. Take time out for you –regularly. You deserve it. Get a friend or relative to look after the person you care for, even if it’s just for half an hour twice a week so that you can go out and do something physical that lifts your mood and makes you feel better.

And it’s also important to stress that if the person you’re caring for is mobile, they will also benefit from some regular exercise. It will make them happier, less stressed and more relaxed.

More information
Christina Macdonald is the author of the book, Run Yourself Fit (Summersdale, £6.99), a friendly guide for new runners. The book is available online and in all good book stores.

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