Exercise & Dementia: How can Physical Activity help?

Dementia is a progressive condition that affects the brain, causing a decline in memory, thinking and reasoning skills. It’s estimated that there are 944,000 people living with dementia in the UK, including around 70,800 people with young onset dementia (where symptoms develop before the age of 65).

Together with our charity partner, Dementia UK, we have put together this guide to how exercise could help reduce the risk of dementia and enable people to live well with the condition.

Could exercise prevent dementia?

Currently, there is no known cure for dementia and no definite way of preventing it. However, there is evidence that a healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity could help protect against it or delay its onset.

Regular exercise improves heart health, which in turn reduces the risk of dementia. For example, vascular dementia – one of the most common types – develops as a result of problems with the supply of blood to the brain, often because of a stroke or TIA (‘mini stroke’). Exercise helps prevent damage or disease to the blood vessels in the brain, and so may protect against dementia.

Exercise also helps protect against type 2 diabetes, obesity and depression, which are all linked to dementia.

We’ve also recorded a podcast around this subject, chatting to Sarah Merrill, a Dementia UK Admiral Nurse, which you can watch or listen to right here:

How exercise improves your quality of life

If you live with dementia, exercise can help to improve your quality of life and may slow the progression of symptoms.

For example, physical activity can help to improve sleep. This is very important for people with dementia, as sleep problems are common and can worsen confusion and memory loss.

Exercise can also relieve stress by reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol and promoting the release of ‘feel-good’ chemicals called endorphins in the brain. These chemicals can lift your mood – and as depression is associated with dementia, this may in turn improve the person’s dementia symptoms.

There is some evidence that exercise improves cognitive function, particularly in older people, by increasing blood flow to the brain. This can have a positive effect on memory, concentration and problem-solving skills.

In addition, exercise helps boost self-esteem by giving people a sense of accomplishment and can be a vital source of social contact for people with dementia and their carers.

How much exercise should a person with dementia do?

The amount of exercise a person with dementia should do depends on their age, health and fitness level. For example, a person with young onset dementia may already be fit and active and able to carry on with their usual activities, while an older person may find exercise more difficult.

Ideally, the person with dementia should aim to exercise for 30 minutes at least three times a week. If, however, the person is not used to exercising, they should start slowly and build up gradually. It’s important to find the right balance as too much exercise can be tiring, and fatigue could make their dementia symptoms worse.

You should also be aware of any mobility problems in the person with dementia, which become more likely as their condition progresses, as these will affect how much exercise they can do. Activities should always be tailored to the person’s needs and abilities.

Types of exercise for a person with dementia

There are many types of exercise that a person with dementia can take part in. These include structured activities at a leisure centre, such as:

  • Swimming – this uses muscle memory so the person doesn’t have to learn a new skill. It avoids pressure on the joints and is an activity that carers can join in with. Aqua aerobics can also be good fun and offer opportunities to socialise
  • Dance – as well as providing physical exercise, listening to music has a positive impact on people with dementia, including lifting their mood, improving their ability to communicate, and reducing social isolation
  • Yoga and Pilates – these help to maintain flexibility and improve core strength, which may reduce the risk of falls
  • Balance classes – as well as improving core strength, these can be adapted to suit people who are not used to physical activity or are experiencing a decline in their physical abilities
  • Gym – workouts can be tailored to meet the person’s needs and are a good form of exercise for younger people who may be physically strong and active
  • Team or paired sports, eg football/walking football, tennis or badminton – these offer social connection as well as physical activity

There are also many informal opportunities to exercise. Gardening, for example, is a good way to be physically active and spend time outside, providing mental stimulation and improving mood. It can be a light activity or more strenuous depending on the person’s abilities.

Similarly, household chores such as folding laundry, dusting, vacuuming, or washing the car are good forms of exercise.

Walking, running or cycling can also be beneficial, raising the heart rate and developing all-over strength and fitness. These could be done with a club or exercise buddy, especially if the person with dementia is physically able but may become forgetful or confused about their route.

Seated exercise

If the person living with dementia has mobility problems, they may be able to exercise from their chair, sofa or bed. It’s a good idea for their family carer to join in so the person can mirror the exercises. Playing accompanying music from a playlist of favourite songs can help the person engage and make the movements flow.

Here are some suggestions:

  • While holding a ball or cushion, rotate at the waist moving the ball from left to right
  • Step in rhythm to music as if marching
  • With heels on the floor, alternately tap each set of toes to music
  • Lift the arms out in front and wiggle hands and fingers
  • If it is safe for the person to do so, holding the arms of a chair, shift to the edge of the seat and slowly rise to a standing position
  • Staying seated, raise the knees with their hands supporting their legs if necessary
  • Stretch the limbs while lying in bed – this can be done with the support of a carer or independently

If you have any questions about exercise for a person with dementia, please speak to a GP.

Everyone Active aims to raise £50,000 for Dementia UK across 2022-2023 to help provide a lifeline to more families facing dementia. To find out more about our partnership, please click here and if you’d like to help us with our fundraising, please visit our JustGiving page.

If you need support with any aspect of dementia, please contact Dementia UK’s free Helpline on 0800 888 6678 (Monday-Friday 9am- 9pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-5pm) or email [email protected]. To book a telephone or video appointment with a specialist dementia nurse in Dementia UK’s virtual clinics, please visit