Alzheimer’s Disease: Tips for exercise as a form of prevention

It’s no surprise that exercise is good for your mind and body, but the Ontario Brain Institute has launched an initiative to study the specific effects of physical activity on the prevention and management of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Older adults don't get enough physical activity, but it can be important for memory

Moderate activities in bouts of just 10 minutes can make a difference in older adults' mental health. (Matt Tunseth/Associated Press)

It’s no surprise that exercise is good for your mind and your body, but the Ontario Brain Institute has launched an initiative to study the specific effects of physical activity on the prevention and management of Alzheimer’s Disease.

In partnership with McMaster University in Hamilton, the institute released tips for safe physical activity for older adults, saying "it’s not too late to start."

"Most older adults are not getting sufficient exercise for good health," said Jennifer Heisz, an assistant professor at McMaster on the research team.

"We know there is a direct link between exercise and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s, but we don’t really understand the mechanism. Our research is focused on looking at the intricacies of different kinds of physical activity and memory specifically for brain health."

"The end goal of this research is to give people a practical way that they can take control of their aging, and use exercise as a personalized prescription."

Discussing exercise plans with a primary care physician is a good first step, as is starting out slowly.

It can be as simple as making a conscious effort to move your body more every day, the institute's Alzheimer's "toolkit" says, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Things like:

  • Breathe and lift your arms over your head.
  • Use the stairs.
  • Engage in active hobbies (bird watching, fishing, gardening).
  • Dance.
  • Do some light housework.
  • Play with your grandchildren.
  • Take an after-dinner stroll with a partner.
  • Walk around the mall.
  • Get up and walk around during commercials.

Heisz also mentioned McMaster’s PACE, the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence, a seniors-only gym for people over the age of 55 open to the community. The gym has trained kinesiologists who supervise peer workouts and offers specific exercise prescriptions.

"It’s one of the great things about Hamilton," she said. "It’s a safe place for older people to work out."

For older adults, exercising safely can be an issue.

"Our main recommendation is to exercise with a partner or a caregiver," Heisz said.

How to stay safe:

If you have difficulty balancing, use the back of a chair or hold on to a counter.

Take extra care as a pedestrian and wear an ID bracelet if you are walking alone.

If swimming, have a friend when in and around the water or swim at pools with a qualified lifeguard on duty.

If you start to have trouble walking and moving around, continue to do safe activities such as light housework, stationary bike cycling, chair yoga and sitting exercises. Use a cane or other mobility aid if you need to.

Be active with others (including pets). You are more likely to get moving if you make a commitment to do it with someone else.

Choose activities you like and have fun.

The “toolkit” divides exercise for seniors into three categories.

Aerobic activity

This includes brisk walking, pole walking, snowshoeing, hiking. Use a stationary bike, swim, cross-country ski, skate, row, do paddling and kayaking.

Muscle and bone strength 

Build this by using resistance tools like bands and weights, or do yard work and gardening; and sign up for aqua fitness classes, curling or bowling. Do heavy housework (vacuuming, scrubbing).

Enhancing balance

Do this with tai chi, yoga, golf, dancing and stretching.