Jogging the Memory with Fun Fitness Ideas

By Michelle Porter Tiernan

Dancing, gardening and playing games can be good exercise for any age. For people with Alzheimer’s disease, these fun fitness activities can boost self-esteem, improve mood and bring back pleasant memories from younger days.

“Wii” Just Want to Play
Imagine an 83-year-old man with mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as he waits for a pitch and keeps his eye on the ball. He swings a baseball bat and hits a home run as the crowd goes wild.

The Nintendo Wii is a video game platform that simulates playing sports like baseball, tennis, bowling and golf. Using the game’s motion-sensitive tracking device, a player swings a virtual baseball bat or rolls a computer-generated bowling ball to “play” on her TV screen.

Wii has become a popular new form of exercise for seniors and those in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease. “The Wii has become a really new and unique thing for seniors to get involved with, and it is really because of the simplicity of use,” says Chris Brockington of the Lifecare Group, a group of retirement centers in Canada.

Socialization and hand-eye coordination are two of the ways that Wii can be helpful, says Peggy Bargmann, coordinator of the Brain Fitness Club. Bargmann leads the program for seniors experiencing early memory loss.

University of Central Florida students from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders volunteer to participate in the Brain Fitness Club, which meets two days a week at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, Fla. Students are matched one-to-one with seniors in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia.

The Brain Fitness Club uses Wii, ping-pong, pool, Scrabble and other games as a form of mental and physical stimulation for participants. Wii bowling is one of the most popular video games, says Bargmann. “Each game, everything we do here, has a purpose,” she says. “It’s not just entertainment; hopefully it might help preserve certain cognitive skills in early Alzheimer patients.”

Dancing isn’t just fun—it’s great exercise.

Foxtrot the Night Away
Dancing and music can be a magical combination for unlocking long-term memories in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Since 2001, the Mount Royal Towers Retirement Community in Birmingham, Ala., has sponsored a dancing event for Alzheimer’s program residents and their families. Those who attend wear formal dress and dance to the sounds of big band music from the 1940s. Dancing and listening to music helps the residents connect with their past as they recall pleasant memories from years ago.

Dancing does double duty as a physical and mental workout for people with mild forms of dementia. What makes dancing different? It may be the mental challenge or the fun. Dancers must remember complex steps and move in time with the music while working with a partner. This could make learning new steps difficult for dementia patients, but the ability to sense rhythm or to follow old, familiar steps is usually not impaired.

“Dance therapy focuses on movement and interaction in the present moment, drawing on the person’s social and emotional abilities rather than their disabilities,” says public relations chairperson Donna Newman-Bluestein of the American Dance Therapy Association. “Because memories are stored in the body’s muscles and tissues, expressive movement can release memories.”

Twirling around a ballroom floor with a partner in your arms may also help prevent Alzheimer’s disease. A study of 469 people over the age of 75 by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City found that ballroom dancing was associated with a lowered risk of dementia. Published by The New England Journal of Medicine, the study found dancing cut the risk of the disease by 76 percent.

Healthy physical activity can go “green” with gardening.

Grow a Garden of Memories
Raking leaves, planting flowers and watering plants are easy gardening chores that provide a sense of accomplishment and a form of exercise for people with Alzheimer’s disease. These simple tasks may also help reduce memory loss.

A four-year study of nearly 750 seniors living in Italy found that moderately strenuous activities, such as working in a garden or doing light housework, were associated with a lowered risk of vascular dementia, a form of memory loss linked to poor blood flow in the brain. Findings of the study were published in the medical journal Neurology.

Poor blood flow may aggravate memory loss and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Physical activities like gardening may deliver more oxygen and nutrients that are critical for a clear mind and better memory.

Exercise for the Body and Brain

No matter your age, regular physical activity can improve heart health, build muscle and sharpen thinking skills. Physical fitness is good for everyone.

If you’re a caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease, exercise should never be boring. Whether dancing, playing games or gardening, help your loved one spark some memories by making fitness fun.

Source: www.ALZinfo.org. Author: Michelle Porter Tiernan, Preserving Your Memory: The Magazine of Health and Hope; Summer 2009.