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Exercise’s Impact on Cognition

It’s not news that the brain changes with age. Significant changes in regions of the brain occur in healthy adults as they age, based on MRI studies.(1) The caudate, cerebellum, hippocampus, and association cortices shrunk substantially. This shrinkage in the hippocampus and the cerebellum accelerates with age. The hippocampus, the site for new memory formation, is involved with learning and emotion with a rich supply of estrogen and progesterone receptors. The cerebellum coordinates voluntary movements including all conscious muscular activity, balance, coordination, and speech.

Incidence of Dementia

The United States is experiencing both a declining birth rate and an increased average life span. This combination will increase the percentage of people over the age of 65 to 19.6%, resulting in a total of 71 million people by the year 2030.(2) The number of people over the age of 80 is also expected to increase to 19.5 million by 2030.(2) These changes will greatly increase the number of people with dementia since 6% to 10% of North American individuals aged 65 or older have dementia; this increases to 30% in those aged 85 or over.(3)

Dementia, or senility, is a difficult-to-define cluster of symptoms that include memory loss, loss of vocabulary, and loss of motor function in the absence of a change in the level of consciousness. Dementia can be measured qualitatively by verbal memory tests such as the Blessed Orientation-Memory-Concentration test, comprising six questions as listed in the following table:

The scores from each of the table’s six items are multiplied to produce a weighted score. Score 1 for each incorrect response; weighted error scores greater than 10 are consistent with dementia.(4)

Exercise Affects the Brain

The incidence of Alzheimer’s dementia can be used as a measurement of brain health.(5) As part of his study “Exercise Is Associated With Reduced Risk for Incident Dementia Among Persons 65 Years of Age and Older,” Eric B. Larson, MD, MPH, et al asked 1,740 mentally healthy men and women over the age of 65 how many days per week over the past year they had exercised for at least 15 minutes. The incidence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) was significantly higher for individuals who exercised fewer than three times per week (19.7 per 1,000 person-years) compared with those who exercised more than three times per week (13 per 1,000 person-years). These results were not influenced by the E4 alleles on the apolipoprotein gene, which indicates a genetic predisposition for AD.

Laura Podewils et al studied the relationship between physical activity and dementia in 3,375 men and women over the course of 5.4 years.(6) Physical activity in these individuals over the age of 65 was assessed via the Minnesota Leisure Time Questionnaire. The subjects were questioned regarding the frequency and duration of their physical activity over the previous two weeks. Like Larson et al, this study found that increased exercise decreased the incidence of Alzheimer’s dementia.

The Mini-Mental State Exam can be used as a measure of cognitive ability or impairment. The 30-point questionnaire commonly used by health care providers screens for dementia, evaluates cognitive impairment, and follows cognitive change over time, making it an effective way to document an individual’s response to treatment.(7) Kristine Yaffe, MD, et al used the Mini-Mental State Exam to show that cognitive performance increases as the number of blocks walked per week increases.(8) The study involved 5,925 women over the age of 65 over a six- to eight-year period.

The most objective measure of cardiovascular fitness is the measurement of the maximum rate of oxygen consumption as measured during incremental exercise—milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute. A subjective measure of exercise amount or duration is not as accurate as the above direct measure, which is called maximum oxygen consumption or VO2 max. Deborah Barnes, PhD, et al conducted a six-year study of 349 individuals over the age of 55 measuring both VO2 max and subjective measures of fitness. Barnes found only the lower levels of VO2 max correlated with cognitive decline.(9) The four studies mentioned show a positive cognitive benefit from exercise. A meta-analysis performed by Colcombe and Kramer from 1966 to 2001 examined 18 studies of fitness training and cognitive function in nondemented older adults. They concluded that fitness training had a positive influence on cognition.(10)

Prospective controlled human studies provide more robust data than both animal and uncontrolled studies. Stanley J. Colcombe et al were the first to show in a prospective controlled setting that increases in cardiovascular fitness in humans results in increased functioning of the prefrontal and parietal cortices. These data suggest that increased cardiovascular fitness can affect improvements in the plasticity of the aging human brain and may serve to reduce both biological and cognitive senescence in humans.(11) In addition, women tended to exhibit the greater benefit.(12) In a literature review, Kramer et al complemented these data through the use of MRI, which is very accurate in the brain. Through this technique, Kramer and colleagues concluded that older adults who participated in the aerobic training group demonstrated a significant increase in gray matter volume in regions of the frontal and superior temporal lobe when compared with controls. The results suggest that even relatively short exercise interventions can begin to restore some of the losses in brain volume associated with normal aging.(12)

Animal studies offer some insight into how aerobic exercise benefits brain function. Aerobic exercise increases brain function in both young and old animals. Aerobic exercise increases the levels of brain-derived neurogenic factor (BDNF) and insulinlike growth factor 1 (IGF-1). BDNF has been shown to regulate neurotransmitters, including dopaminergic and cholinergic systems and may be playing an important role in the exercise-induced effects on the brain.(13) BDNF may be involved in the postexercise changes seen on a brain MRI. In addition, IGF-1 may be mediating the effects of exercise on BDNF, neurogenesis, and cognitive performance. Animal studies provide information on the effects of exercise that is difficult to obtain in human intervention studies. The sum of these animal studies overlaps with results from human studies and suggests that exercise is an effective enhancer of neurocognitive functioning in both young and old animals.(12)

AD, the most common form of dementia, shares many age-related pathophysiological features of type 2 diabetes, including insulin resistance, disrupted glucose metabolism in nonneural tissues, peripheral oxidative and inflammatory stress, amyloid aggregation, neural atrophy, and cognitive decline. Brain insulin resistance appears to be an early and common feature of AD, a phenomenon accompanied by IGF-1 resistance, promoting cognitive decline independent of classic AD pathology.(14) Such a large set of shared features suggests shared etiologies.


High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a type of endurance training involving short periods of maximal effort followed by periods of maintenance or recovery effort. What can differ is the timing and type of endurance exercise. A typical cycling HIIT pattern may be four to six maximal 30-second cycling sprints separated by 4.5-minute recovery periods of comfortable cycling. When HIIT is compared with longer steady endurance training, the HIIT patterns show increased mitochondrial density in muscle cells and greater muscle performance improvements.(15,16)

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This article was featured in Today’s Geriatric Medicine.

Today’s Geriatric Medicine is a bimonthly trade publication offering news and insights for professionals in elder care.

Get a Free Subscription to Today’s Geriatric Medicine


This article was featured in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Today’s Geriatric Medicine (Vol. 9 No. 1 P. 26). Written by Robert Drapkin, MD

Robert Drapkin, MD, a medical oncologist and competitive bodybuilder in Clearwater, Florida, specializes in helping elderly adults achieve a healthful lifestyle to combat illnesses or disease and to extend lifespan.



1. Raz N, Lindenberger U, Rodrigue KM, et al. Regional brain changes in aging healthy adults: general trends, individual differences and modifiers. Cereb Cortex. 2005;15(11):1676-1689.

2. Chapman DP, Williams SM, Strine TW, Anda RF, Moore MJ. Dementia and its implications for public health. Prev Chronic Dis. 2006;3(2):A34.

3. Hendrie HC. Epidemiology of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 1998;6(2 Suppl 1):S3-S18.

4. The Blessed Orientation-Memory-Concentration Test. University of Missouri Geriatric Examination Tool Kit website. http://geriatrictoolkit.missouri.edu/cog/bomc.pdf.

5. Larson EB, Wang L, Bowen JD, et al. Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. Ann Intern Med. 2006;144(2):73-81.

6. Podewils LJ, Guallar E, Kuller LH, et al. Physical activity, APOE genotype, and dementia risk: findings from the Cardiovascular Health Cognition Study. Am J Epidemiol. 2005;161(7):639-651.

7. Pangman VC, Sloan J, Guse L. An examination of psychometric properties of the mini-mental state examination and the standardized mini-mental state examination: implications for clinical practice. Appl Nurs Res. 2000;13(4):209-213.

8. Yaffe K, Barnes D, Nevitt M, Lui LY, Covinsky K. A prospective study of physical activity and cognitive decline in elderly women: women who walk. Arch Intern Med. 2001;161(14):1703-1708.

9. Barnes DE, Yaffe K, Satariano WA, Tager IB. A longitudinal study of cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in healthy older adults. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2003;51(4):459-465.

10. Colcombe S, Kramer AF. Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: a meta-analytic study. Psychol Sci. 2003;14(2):125-130.

11. Colcombe SJ, Kramer AF, Erickson KI, et al. Cardiovascular fitness, cortical plasticity, and aging. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004;101(9):3316-3321.

12. Kramer AF, Erickson KI, Colcombe SJ. Exercise, cognition, and the aging brain. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006;101(4):1237-1242.

13. Knüsel B, Winslow JW, Rosenthal A, et al. Promotion of central cholinergic and dopaminergic neuron differentiation by brain-derived neurotrophic factor but not neurotrophin 3. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1991;88(3):961-965.

14. Talbot K, Wang HY, Kazi H, et al. Demonstrated brain insulin resistance in Alzheimer’s disease patients is associated with IGF-1 resistance, IRS-1 dysregulation, and cognitive decline. J Clin Invest. 2012;122(4):1316-1338.

15. Gibala M. Molecular responses to high-intensity interval exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2009;34(3):428-432.

16. Billat VL. Interval training for performance: a scientific and empirical practice. Special recommendations for middle- and long-distance running. Part I: anaerobic interval training. Sports Med. 2001;31(1):13-31.


The Neuroscience of Mind-Body

In an era where neurological disorders and mental illness run rampant, effective and scalable non-pharmacological interventions are desperately needed. Luckily, science continues to demonstrate the efficacy of exercise-based interventions in improving cognitive, neurobiological, and mental health outcomes in a variety of populations. Multiple modalities of exercise, such as aerobic training and resistance training, continue to demonstrate improvements in several measures associated with brain health. While aerobic exercise has received a majority of the spotlight over the past couple of decades, other forms of exercise have also moved to the forefront of the exercise-neuroscience literature.


Dementia Doesn’t Invalidate Exercise Needs

With careful capability assessment and appropriate program design, exercise regimens can improve walking, balance, and flexibility and reduce falls in patients with dementia.

“Ruth, sit down! Don’t get up on your own.”
Who is that? Why is she yelling at me? I need to get up. My legs are stiff and I want to go for a walk.

“Ruth, stop getting up. You’re going to fall.”
Stop yelling at me. Who are these people? I feel so anxious. All I want to do is go for a walk. Why can’t I just go for a walk? I have walked by myself my whole life.

In working with older adults, many of us have witnessed circumstances similar to this. Often staff wish to maintain the safety and security of individuals living with dementia by limiting their independent mobility and ambulation. But are we truly protecting these individuals who are at risk? What are the ramifications of our actions? Movement and mobility are important foundations to maintaining strength, balance, flexibility, and continence; reducing anxiety and depression; and maintaining social relationships.

To this point, the positive impact of exercise in older adults is well documented in the literature. Exercise programs have been found to result in more favorable physical, social, and emotional health status and fewer activities of daily living impairments in the elderly.(1) These optimistic results provide support for older adults’ exercise groups to improve quality of life and reduce the burden of care for at-risk populations, including those with dementia.

While many focus on the cognitive effects of dementia, the physical aspects are also pronounced. Frequently noted are gait changes including a decrease in step length, step height, and reduction in cadence. These are compounded by balance deficits associated with a reduction in coordination, proprioception, and vision. To further aggravate the situation, the physical effects also can result in expressive and receptive communication deficits. As a result, patients living with dementia can have difficulty communicating these issues, as well as pain.

Effects of Exercise on Individuals With Dementia

Randomized controlled trials of patients with dementia or mild cognitive impairment have indicated improved cognitive scores after six to 12 months of aerobic exercise when compared with a sedentary population.(2) Other benefits associated with aerobic activity include the reduction of osteoporosis and fracture risk,(3) as well as a reduction in mortality risk.(4) Aerobic activity has also been noted to have other beneficial effects on secondary diagnoses associated with dementia including depression,5 anxiety,6 and behavior management.(7)

While the exact causative reasons for these beneficial outcomes are not fully understood, many studies favor the view that the cerebrovascular benefits exercise has on other body systems can be applied to the neurodegenerative process of dementia. Furthermore, evidence exists that aerobic exercise reduces the progression of the neurodegenerative process through facilitation of neuroprotective factors and neuroplasticity.(8)

The positive effects of exercise have also been found in individuals living with dementia who are already experiencing negative physical outcomes. Toulotte et al studied the effects of physical training on frail patients with dementia with a history of falls.(9) The training group was noted to have improved walking, flexibility, and balance, and a reduction in falls. Furthermore, Huusko et al evaluated the impact with hip fracture patients who also had mild/moderate dementia. Those who received intensive rehab were found to have shorter lengths of hospital stay and greater ability to return to the community than those in the control group.(10)

Developing an Exercise Prescription

Regardless of the reasons behind the beneficial effects of exercise on individuals with dementia, it’s necessary to evaluate each patient individually before initiating an exercise program. This includes an interdisciplinary review of an individual’s age, prior exercise involvement, and comorbid medical conditions. Based on the findings, an appropriate exercise program can then be initiated using the American Heart Association’s recommendation of 150 minutes per week of moderately strenuous physical activity.(11) These minutes of exercise can be divided over any number of days per week and with any number of sessions per day. For patient tolerance purposes, these sessions are often kept to between 15 and 30 minutes.

What type of exercise is appropriate for a patient to perform? For individuals with dementia, similar to those without, it is important to focus on their interests. Understanding these interest levels requires investigation. For some patients, this investigation may be complicated by apathy, aggressive behaviors, pain, and communication difficulties.

Depending on the severity of the disease, a focused understanding of a patient’s short- and long-term memory recall is necessary. While older adults without dementia may have a strong recall of their short- and long-term interests, this may not be true of an individual with dementia. Therefore, for those with intact long-term memory, we need to obtain the relevant information. Maybe interests include running, ballroom dancing, bowling, bicycling, gardening, or swimming. If patients can’t physically perform these activities, should we just give up? Of course not. We need to improvise. For example, ballroom dancing may now require walkers, or bicycling may need to be on stationary recumbent bikes with scenery posted around the bicycle.

Case Study

Ms. T is a 53-year-old female who presented to the Hebrew Home at Riverdale skilled nursing facility with a diagnosis including vascular dementia. Prior to initiating a therapy-based warm water program, Ms. T required intermittent assistance walking with a rollator. Her cognition was limited to the point that she could not participate in interviews on the Minimum Data Set (MDS). Despite significant staff efforts to minimize any emotional or environmental disturbances, she experienced periods of agitation. She completed a standardized assessment of her mobility, utilizing the Timed Up and Go (TUG) assessment, completing it in 32 seconds.

At that time, a land- and water-based exercise program with a three-days-per-week frequency was initiated with a physical therapist and dance movement therapist. The hypothesis behind this program was that through the use of multiple therapeutic modalities, gains in strength, balance, cognition, emotional support, and socialization would be achieved. Strength, balance, and functional tasks including ambulation with buoyancy in multiple planes, rotational activities, plyometrics, and resistive activities were implemented. For cognition, behavioral management, and emotional support purposes, music, singing, mental imagery, and floatation were incorporated into individual sessions.

After two months of participating in this innovative program, Ms. T was walking independently without an assistive device. She had also demonstrated an improvement in TUG assessment, completing the test in 10 fewer seconds. Additionally, Ms. T was noted to have experienced an improvement in her cognition, as she was now able to participate in interviews for the MDS. Most meaningful was that Ms. T rediscovered her smile. Tenaya Cowsill, MS, R-DMT, LCAT-P, reported that “this program has been an incredibly meaningful source of joy, autonomy, and pride” for Ms. T.

The Power of Dance

Dance/movement therapy (DMT) is an evidence-based movement approach to psychosocial health and well-being. The American Dance Therapy Association defines DMT as “the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of the individual.”(12) Therapists are board-certified licensed mental health professionals who use movement as a tool to explore, support, and strengthen clients’ emotional needs and coping mechanisms.

DMT can result in both positive physical and emotional outcomes, including a “sense of community, decreasing the experience of emotional isolation, and enriched relational interaction.”(13) Because this modality comprises both verbal and nonverbal interventions, it is especially appropriate for older adults with memory loss who are affected by the expressive and receptive communication difficulties.

The American Dance Therapy Association describes the emotional benefits and processes in treatment for older adults. “Individuals’ capacities and incapacities are explored, and accompanying feelings are expressed. Mourning, frustration, joy, and laughter can be ritualized in group movement, allowing for emotional release and group bonding.”(14)

The physical benefits of exercise and movement have been detailed in previous sections of this article. DMT, which places a focus on mental and emotional health, provides additional benefits as its holistic process includes “physical activity or exercise [and also] … learning, attention, memory, emotion, rhythmic motor coordination, balance, gait, visuospatial ability, acoustic stimulation, imagination, improvisation, and social interaction.”(15)

Older adults, especially those living with memory loss, may struggle with coordinated movement due to changes in brain functioning. Dance therapy welcomes all levels of functioning, encouraging engagement from an individual’s baseline, wherever that may be.

The creative, fluid, psychodynamic process allows for relatedness and engagement with multiple levels of functioning. A primary practice of a dance/movement therapist is one of embodied mirroring defined as the “somatic attunement of the therapist in face-to-face engaged interaction,”(13) which physically communicates to individuals living with memory loss that they are seen and understood. In a time when communication is often impaired, embodied mirroring provides an important tool for validating a patient’s experience.(15) As clinician Kalila B. Homann, MA, LPC-S, BC-DMT, wrote, “Mirroring is practiced by the therapist in DMT as a way to enhance emotional resonance between a therapist and patient … when a therapist mirrors the client’s emotional movements, the therapist is communicating this understanding and acceptance nonverbally.”

On a neurological level this intervention activates the brain’s mirror neuron system. From the neuroscience lens, mirror neurons are thought to be the determining factor in our capacity for empathy and interrelatedness.(13,16) This neurophysiological process “coordinates auditory and visual perception of nonverbal communication by tracking movement and expression in others—replicating the patterns of activation in the brain of the observer.” A resident with memory loss thus experiences validation on a neurobiological level. In dementia, because of the changes in communication that often occur due to brain deterioration, the benefits of emotional attunement from a therapist cannot be overstated. This need for witnessing and validation is a basic human need that does not change with dementia.

Case Study

Ms. M was a 92-year-old woman living in a skilled nursing neighborhood at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. She carried a diagnosis of mild memory impairment and was a vibrant and active member of the community. She expressed and demonstrated a love for music. She would ambulate throughout the home with her walker, attending a wide variety of programs and actively socializing.

After suffering a stroke, her life shifted. She became reliant on a wheelchair for mobility, and her speech, gait, balance, and cognition were all impaired. This medical event also triggered an exacerbation of major depression, something she had lived with throughout her life. Through working with the rehabilitation team, she demonstrated improvements in functioning; however, major depression remained an impediment to treatment. As her therapy was reaching completion, she was transitioned via a warm handoff to DMT twice weekly from her wheelchair.

During group sessions, she presented with bright affect and eye contact, which was supported and validated by the therapist facilitating the group. In the therapeutic group space, Ms. M was able to both verbally and nonverbally express her grief and frustration with her condition. She spoke about her depression and was able to verbally and physically process her feelings through creative expression within the therapeutic alliance. Ms. M was able to “engage physiological processes related to emotion and make them more available to the conscious mind,” as Homann’s writings suggest. Through increased awareness Ms. M was able to more fully process and express her depressive symptoms, enabling her to further her treatment.

As dance therapy progressed, Ms. M began to increase her interpersonal relatedness, making eye contact with peers, sharing memories and physical gestures of connection. Ali Schechter, LCAT, R-DMT, her dance/movement therapist, states: “[Ms. M’s] movement generates vitality which results in expression.” Through the therapeutic alliance, this expression was validated, supporting Ms. M’s improved mood state.

As her mood state improved through DMT, Ms. M expressed the desire to begin standing and walking again. In addition to mood state support, DMT focused on movement of the spine, core, and hips, aiding in body strengthening for standing. The interdisciplinary team referred her for further physical therapy, and she began standing and, at times, walking with her walker for short periods. She continues to be an active participant in DMT sessions.

Blending Therapy Modalities

Maintaining and improving fitness and well-being remains an important evidence-based practice in our society. This is further magnified for older adults, especially those living with dementia. While the benefits of fitness programs remain the same for this population, the prescription for achievement may require a blended approach. Therapies, inclusive of physical and dance/movement, share many common strengths and goals. Therefore, the ability of these modalities to partner provides opportunities for improved mental, physical, and emotional health. The goal in all treatment is the well-being of residents, and care teams should use interdisciplinary tools and modalities toward that goal.

Get a Free Subscription to Today’s Geriatric Medicine

This article was featured in Today’s Geriatric Medicine.

Today’s Geriatric Medicine is a bimonthly trade publication offering news and insights for professionals in elder care.

Get a Free Subscription to Today’s Geriatric Medicine


This article was featured in the March/April 2018 issue of Today’s Geriatric Medicine (Vol. 11 No. 2 P. 14). Written by David Siegelman and Mary Farkas.

 David Siegelman, PT, RAC-CT, is the vice president of rehabilitation at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in Bronx, New York. In this role he oversees the operation of the short-term rehabilitation units, clinical documentation and reimbursement department, and rehabilitation department. Having entered the field as a physical therapist, he has demonstrated expertise in clinical and systems management in acute care hospitals and skilled nursing facilities over the past 20 years.

Mary Farkas, RDT, LCAT, CDP, is the director of therapeutic arts and enrichment programs at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale. She is a licensed creative arts therapist who specializes in the intersection of dementia, end-of-life care, and mental health.



  1. Hamar B, Coberley CR, Pope JE, Rula EY. Impact of a senior fitness program on measures of physical and emotional health and functioning. Popul Health Manag. 2013;16(6):364-372.
  2. Smith PJ, Blumenthal JA, Hoffman BM, et al. Aerobic exercise and neurocognitive performance: a meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Psychosom Med. 2010;72(3):239-252.
  3. Rizzoli R, Bruyere O, Cannata-Andia JB, et al. Management of osteoporosis in the elderly. Curr Med Res Opin. 2009;25(10):2373-2387.
  4. Lee DC, Artero EG, Sui X, Blair SN. Mortality trends in the general population: the importance of cardiorespiratory fitness. J Psychopharmacol. 2010;24(4 Suppl):27-35.
  5. Conn VS. Depressive symptom outcomes of physical activity interventions: meta-analysis findings. Ann Behav Med. 2010;39(2):128-138.
  6. Dunn AL. Review: exercise programmes reduce anxiety symptoms in sedentary patients with chronic illnesses. Evid Based Ment Health. 2010;13(3):95.
  7. Teri L, Gibbons LE, McCurry SM, et al. Exercise plus behavioral management in patients with Alzheimer disease: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2003;290(15):2015-2022.
  8. Ahlskog JE, Geda YE, Graff-Radford NR, Petersen RC. Physical exercise as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain aging. Mayo Clin Proc. 2011;86(9):876-884.
  9. Toulotte C, Fabre C, Dangremont B, Lensel G, Thévenon A. Effects of physical training on the physical capacity of frail, demented patients with a history of falling: a randomised controlled trial. Age Aging. 2003;32(1):67-73.
  10. Huusko T, Karppi P, Avikainen V, Kautiainen H, Sulkava R. Randomised, clinically controlled trial of intensive geriatric rehabilitation in patients with hip fracture: subgroup analysis of patients with dementia. BMJ. 2000;321(7269):1107-1111.
  11. Nelson ME, Rejeski WT, Blair SN, et al. Physical activity and public health in older adults: recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2007;116(9):1094-1105.
  12. What is dance/movement therapy? American Dance Therapy Association website. https://adta.org/. Retrieved January 7, 2018.
  13. Homann KB. Embodied concepts of neurobiology in dance/movement therapy practice. Am J Dance Ther. 2010;32(2):80-99.
  14. American Dance Therapy Association. Dance/movement therapy & the older adult. https://adta.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/DMT-with-the-Elderly.pdf. Accessed January 7, 2018.
  15. Kshytriya S, Barnstaple R, Rabinovich DB, DeSouza JFX. Dance and aging: a critical review of findings in neuroscience. Am J Dance Ther. 2015;37(2):81-112.
  16. Iacoboni M. Mirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect With Others. New York, NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux; 2008.

Exercise and Dementia — Does Physical Activity Provide Cognitive Benefits?

The World Health Organization recommends regular physical exercise—both aerobic and strength training—for older individuals as a means of reducing cognitive decline.1 However, studies on the effects of exercise on cognitive function in individuals with dementia have produced mixed results. While some research indicates a positive effect, other studies have failed to find clear benefits. Thus, the question remains: Is exercise actually effective at slowing down cognitive decline in individuals with dementia?

Evidence in Favor: Cognitive Benefits in Dementia

Repeated randomized controlled trials have found that various types of exercise programs produce cognitive benefits in dementia over a three- to four-month period. For example, one trial of 40 community-dwelling adults with mild to moderate dementia examined the impact of a four-month home-based exercise intervention consisting of strength and balance training exercises plus daily walking. Those in the exercise group showed improved scores on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) over baseline as compared with controls. (2) Similarly, a Belgian trial of 25 patients with moderate to severe dementia found that a program of daily physical exercises supported by music produced significant improvements in cognition on both the MMSE and the fluency subtest of the Amsterdam Dementia Screening Test 6 compared with controls. (3) Multiple other trials have produced similar results. (4-7)

A weakness of most randomized controlled trials showing a cognitive benefit of exercise in dementia is that the study populations have been small. One 2016 trial, however, tested a moderate- to high-intensity exercise intervention in a larger sample: 200 community-dwelling patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Participants were randomized to either a supervised exercise group (one-hour sessions three times per week for four months) or to a control group. The study found no effect on cognition in the exercise group as a whole; however, in an exploratory analysis, the researchers found a possible beneficial impact on cognition among those who were most consistent in attending exercise sessions and who exercised at the greatest intensity, suggesting a dose-response relationship between exercise and cognition. (8)

Evidence Against: No Cognitive Benefits in Dementia

Although a range of studies suggest that exercise has a benefit for dementia treatment, other studies have found no such benefit. Such was the case, for example, with a 2017 Swedish trial of nearly 200 individuals with dementia in a nursing home setting. Participants were randomized either to a four-month high-intensity exercise intervention or to a seated attention control activity. The exercise intervention had no benefit for either global cognition or executive function over control, relative to baseline measures. This was true regardless of the sex of the participants, their forms of dementia, and their cognitive levels at baseline. (9)

In the case of the Swedish trial, the researchers hypothesized that the lack of benefit could be due to the fact that the exercise intervention focused on strength training rather than aerobic exercise. But a 2018 randomized control trial from British researchers produced no better results with aerobic exercise. In this large, carefully designed trial of almost 500 participants with mild to moderate dementia, participants were assigned to either an exercise group (which included both aerobic exercise and strength training) or to a usual-care group. Not only did exercise fail to produce cognitive benefits, but those in the exercise group actually demonstrated slightly worse cognition at the end of 12 months than did those in the usual care group. (10)

Mixed Results From Meta-Analyses and Systematic Reviews

The mixed results in individual randomized trials mirror the contradictory findings of several recent meta-analyses and systematic reviews.

Specifically, a 2015 systematic review of 17 randomized controlled trials found only very limited benefits of exercise in dementia—namely, researchers concluded that exercise programs may improve ability to do activities of daily living in dementia, but that exercise provides no benefits for cognition, neuropsychiatric symptoms, or depression. (11)

By contrast, however, two other recent meta-analyses reached the opposite conclusion and have affirmed the benefits of exercise—especially aerobic exercise—for cognition in dementia. The first of these meta-analyses, published in 2016, found that exercise has a positive benefit on cognition in both AD and other dementias and that both high-frequency and low-frequency exercise programs are beneficial. (12)

The second meta-analysis with a positive result, published in 2018, included 19 randomized controlled trials involving patients with AD as well as those at high risk of AD. This meta-analysis found that exercise interventions appear to slow cognitive decline in both groups—in those who have AD as well as in those at risk of the disease. (13)

Resolving the Inconsistencies

To make sense of the inconsistencies, a first point of note is that the research on exercise and its impact on cognition in dementia is still in its infancy. “There are a relatively small amount of studies that examine this relationship and there are still many unknowns due to limitations of the current literature,” says Gregory Panza, MS, an exercise physiologist at Connecticut’s Hartford Hospital and lead author of the 2018 meta-analysis referenced previously that found a positive benefit of aerobic exercise on cognition in dementia.

Not only are there a limited number of studies, but many of those that are available have been small and of relatively poor methodological quality. In fact, the authors of the 2015 systematic review that found no cognitive benefits of exercise in dementia explicitly noted that there was considerable unexplained heterogeneity in the analysis, and that the quality of the evidence was “very low.” (11)

With respect to meta-analyses in particular, Panza, a doctoral candidate in the department of kinesiology and the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Connecticut, notes a major weakness of several analyses that have found a lack of impact of exercise on cognition: Namely, they have included mixed samples of people with multiple types of dementia (AD, vascular dementia, and other types of dementia) and analyzed them all together as one sample, rather than examining each group separately. “This is an issue because there are several physiological differences among the different types, and as a result, exercise may be affecting each type of dementia differently,” Panza says. Additionally, previous meta-analyses usually have failed to examine moderators such as age and gender. It’s important to examine moderators, he says, “because it gives you valuable information on which variables may be influencing the impact that the exercise is having on cognitive function.”

To address these limitations of previous research, Panza and his coauthors adhered to high-quality methodological reporting standards in their own 2018 meta-analysis, suggesting that their group’s finding of a positive cognitive benefit of exercise in dementia may carry more weight than the negative findings of some previous analyses. In their study, Panza and his colleagues also conducted within-group analyses (in which they compared cognitive changes both before and after the intervention for both the exercise and control groups), rather than merely conducting a between-group analysis as had previous meta-analyses. The within-group analysis allowed the group to take into account the cognitive decline that occurs naturally with untreated disease in the control group, and this analysis revealed the novel finding that exercise could improve cognition among controls. Overall, then, the Panza’s meta-analysis offers important support to the hypothesis that exercise can indeed slow cognitive decline in dementia.

Exercise in Midlife Protects Against Dementia

In addition to the evidence about the effect of exercise on cognition in individuals who already have dementia, there’s also a body of research on the effects of mid- to late-life exercise on future risk of cognitive impairment. (14) For instance, in a longitudinal study of women spanning 44 years, high levels of physical fitness were associated with a significantly reduced risk of dementia several decades later as compared with medium levels of physical fitness; in fact, high levels of physical fitness delayed onset of dementia by 9.5 years compared with medium fitness. (15)

Some research suggests that exercise may have especially significant benefits for individuals at highest genetic risk for dementia. A 2014 study, for instance, examined a group of 97 cognitively normal adults and compared how high vs low levels of physical activity correlated with each group’s hippocampal volume over the following 18 months. Researchers found that exercise had no apparent impact on hippocampal volume in those without genetic risk. But in those at genetic risk (that is, carriers of the APOE-E4 allele), low levels of physical activity were associated with a decline in hippocampal volume. This same group of less-active, higher-risk individuals was also more likely to show both cognitive and functional decline over the study period. (16)

According to Stephen Rao, PhD, Ralph and Luci Schey Endowed Chair at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a main mechanism by which exercise is thought to affect dementia risk is by affecting inflammation. “What exercise seems to be doing is reducing the amount of inflammation that ultimately is a very important factor in the progression of the disease. The disease is going on for 10 to 15 years prior to its diagnosis. So anything you can do to alter processes like inflammation can make a big dent in the rate of progression of the disease.”

To be clear, not all research shows a protective benefit of exercise against dementia: One 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis found that randomized controlled trials on exercise for dementia prevention are limited, but that the existing evidence does not show any significant effect of exercise in terms of reducing dementia risk. (17)

However, several other meta-analyses have come to the opposite conclusion. A 2011 meta-analysis of 15 prospective studies that included a total of more than 33,000 subjects without dementia concluded that all levels of physical exercise, from low to high, offer a significant and consistent protective effect (-35% or greater) against cognitive decline. (18) Similarly, a 2016 meta-analysis of 10 high-quality prospective observational cohort studies found that those who were more active had a 35% to 40% lower chance of developing AD than did those who were less active. (19)

Implications for Providers

According to Panza, there are still significant gaps in the research on exercise and dementia, and there’s a need for considerably more research using neuroimaging and molecular markers to examine the neuropsychological, electrophysiological, and pathophysiological effects that exercise has on dementia. Still, he recommends exercise—especially aerobic exercise—as a valuable treatment option for those who have dementia or are at risk. “Not only is there evidence that exercise can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease but the physical benefits of exercise may also help their patients keep their independence longer.”

Rao likewise acknowledges the unknowns, but he too affirms that exercise appears to be an important means of reducing dementia risk. “Exercise is key. It’s never too late. Providers should really encourage their patients to exercise, within reason, within their level of fitness.”

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Today’s Geriatric Medicine is a bimonthly trade publication offering news and insights for professionals in elder care.

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This article was featured in the May/June 2019 issue of Today’s Geriatric Medicine (Vol. 12 No. 3 P. 6). Written by Jamie Santa Cruz, a health and medical writer in the greater Denver area. Reprinted with permission from Today’s Geriatric Medicine.


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11. Forbes D, Forbes SC, Blake CM, Thiessen EJ, Forbes S. Exercise programs for people with dementia. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;(4):CD006489.

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17. de Souto Barreto P, Demougeot L, Vellas B, Rolland Y. Exercise training for preventing dementia, mild cognitive impairment, and clinically meaningful cognitive decline: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2018;73(11):1504-1511.

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Dementia Free Bodies Fear Becoming Dementia Bodies

Extended periods of silence, reduced thought processes, a decrease in extremes of emotions and recognition of an existence beyond the boundaries of our mind are four attributes shared by two different groups of people in our country.

One feared. The other glorified.

10% of the U.S. population is affected by dementia.

10% of the U.S. population strives to reach enlightenment.

We live in a fear-based culture, one that favors an us vs. them mindset. The use of military metaphors proliferates the dementia narrative in mainstream media and the scientific literature, thereby reinforcing this fear. As Lane and colleagues remind us, attention is turned toward viewing disease as ‘the enemy’, ideas of people being robbed of their memories or held hostage by this rapacious disease come into clearer focus. Meanwhile, individual physical, psychological and social needs fade into the background.

At the 2013 G8 Summit, it was declared that we are facing a global “war of dementia.” Current efforts are focused on early prevention by increasing the public knowledge of modifiable risk factors, encouraging person-centered behavioral management, educating the public and supporting caregivers. Nevertheless, when solutions are created within a disease model of care, strengths and resiliency of people living with dementia will remain confined to a space out of common view.

The possibilities in the space that silence occupies may remain undiscovered unless we move out of the mind and into the body of people living with dementia. Moreover, we must consider the impacts of the dementia-free body on dementia bodies.

Resmaa Menakem, within the context of racialized trauma, talks about the effects of fear held within white body supremacy and how the lizard brain is accountable for actions. The same could be considered when caregivers or everyday people interact with people living with dementia. Perhaps there is a fear that the caregiver will one day be the one living with dementia.

Hearing bodily messages takes practice. With the previously shared four attributes, there are four corresponding ways to practice deciphering bodily messages.

One way to practice is to follow your breath. Find a comfortable position standing, seated, lying down or something else. I invite you to notice the presence of absence of your breath. Perhaps you ask your body, “Are you breathing?”

Words have a place. Words expand and also confine. I invite you to try a bodily practice that mirrors reduced thought processes. Tune into your bodily sensations. You may want to experiment with where you notice your breath in your body. Rather than describe or label, feel, sense and notice.

A third bodily practice is expanding your awareness to include all possible emotions. Rather than hierarchizing your emotions or placing value on some emotions while devaluing others – smiling is good or crying is bad – place your emotions on a continuum. Allow yourself to move amongst and between states of being.

When we connect with our bodily sensations, we are actively engaging in a process of recognition of the space outside of our mind. In moving beyond cognitions, we appreciate other aspects of the human landscape.

Traveling and adventuring into the unknown and out into the hinterlands can be scary. To prepare for these explorations, we might trade fear for curiosity.

Let’s be brave and search the body for clues to understand the mind.

Adrienne Ione is a cognitive behavioral therapist and personal trainer who integrates these fields in support of people thriving across the lifespan. As a pro-aging advocate, she specializes in the self-compassion of dementia.

Website: yes2aging.com
Guided Meditations: insighttimer.com/adrienneIone
Facebook: silverliningsintegrativehealth



Emerson, D. (2015). Trauma-sensitive yoga in therapy: Bringing the body into treatment.

Lane, H.P., McLachlan, S.A., Philip, J. (2013). The war against dementia: are we battle weary yet?, Age and Ageing, 42(3), 281–283, https://doi.org/10.1093/ageing/aft011

Menakem, R. (2017). My Grandmother’s Hands. Central Recovery Press.