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Exercises for Dementia Patients: Ways to Keep a Loved One Physically Active

Written by Chacour Koop
 about the author
13 minute readLast updated March 30, 2023

Exercising is an ideal way to improve health and well-being, and it’s no different for loved ones with dementia. But staying physically active can be challenging when someone experiences memory loss or cognitive impairment. Perhaps it’s becoming difficult for them to start a workout by themselves. Or, maybe a favorite exercise class has become confusing. Fortunately, there are exercises for dementia patients that can keep them active and reduce frustration. Plus, some of these activities can even create meaningful bonds between caregivers and their loved ones.

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Benefits of exercising with dementia

First off, let’s consider just a few of the ways exercise can benefit someone with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.
  • Brain health. Exercising is associated with less risk for cognitive decline because it increases blood flow to the brain.
  • Socialization. Seniors with dementia can often experience loneliness or social isolation, which is harmful to their health. Exercising in a group or walking with friends is a great way to stay engaged with others.
  • Improved sleep. For seniors experiencing sundown syndrome, nighttime is already difficult. Exercise as part of an established routine can improve sleep for someone with dementia.
  • Lowering other risks. Strength training, in particular, can reduce the risk of falls and osteoporosis, while improving thinking and learning skills.

How to help someone with dementia exercise

Starting a new exercise routine or learning a new skill can become more difficult for a loved one with dementia. The National Institute on Aging has a few tips to help someone with Alzheimer’s disease exercise:
  • Join in. Working out is always better with a friend, right? Plus, exercise can help reduce health risks for dementia caregivers.
  • Be realistic. Keeping your loved one engaged in any activity for extended periods can become a challenge. Consider shorter workouts and break down exercises into simple steps.
  • Play music. Playing favorite tunes can help your loved one enjoy working out. There’s a reason music therapy helps so many seniors with dementia.
  • Stay comfortable. It may become difficult for your loved one to verbalize their needs. Make sure they have comfy shoes and clothing and stay hydrated during exercise.

Exercises a loved one with dementia can do

A program of exercises for dementia patients that includes gentle stretching, strength training, balance, and endurance can be beneficial, according to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging.
Here are a few examples of exercises within each of those four categories that you can try out with your loved one.

1. Stretching

Hamstring stretch. While standing with the knees slightly bent, gently bend over until feeling tension in the hamstring muscle. Try staying in this position for gradually longer durations, carefully leaning over farther each time.

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This stretch is especially helpful if your loved one spends long parts of the day in a seated position.
  • Easier modification: While seated in a chair, help your loved one extend one leg while keeping the other in place. Ask them to lean forward slightly until feeling a stretch in their hamstring. Alternate legs several times.
Graphic showing how to do a hamstring stretch.
Side stretch. While standing or sitting cross-legged, have your loved one extend their right arm to the ceiling while touching the floor with the left hand. Gradually lean over to the left to feel a stretch down the side of the body. Repeat on the other side.
  • Easier modification: If your loved one struggles to stand or sit on the floor, this same exercise can be completed in a chair.

2. Strength training

Overhead press. Strength training doesn’t necessarily require expensive equipment, and that’s especially true of the overhead press. Your loved one can just grab a couple of soup cans for this exercise.
Start in a standing position and hold the soup cans above the shoulders. Next, lower into a squat as far as feels safe and comfortable. Lastly, return to a standing position and lift the arms to the ceiling.
  • Easier modification: This exercise could confuse someone with dementia because it involves several steps. If that happens, try only lifting the soup cans above the head to simplify it. This can also be completed from a seated position.
Graphic showing how to do an overhead press with light hand weights.
Shoulder raise. Holding the soup cans or two evenly weighted objects, lift them upward until straight in front of the shoulders and slowly lower them back to the hips. Try eight to 10 repetitions.
  • Easier modificationWeighted objects like soup cans aren’t necessary to build muscle. If lifting them is difficult, try this exercise without weights. It’s also a good one to try from a seated position.

3. Balance exercises

Weight shifts.Balance exercises are important to help prevent falls, according to the Mayo Clinic, and weight shifts are an ideal way to start. While standing with their feet hip-width apart, have your loved one shift to the right and slightly lift their left foot off the ground. Hold the position for up to 30 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
  • Easier modification: To make this easier, don’t lift the foot off the ground too high, and shorten the duration each position is held.
Tai chi. This type of exercise class is often offered at local fitness centers or senior centers. If your loved one already enjoys tai chi, it’s an effective way to promote balance.
  • Easier modification: If your loved one is struggling in a class, keep encouraging them and consider joining them for support. Additionally, short videos are available online, which may be more manageable.

4. Endurance

Dancing. Ballroom, salsa, or line dancing — it doesn’t matter. If your loved one enjoys moving to the music, dancing is an effective way to build endurance and cardiovascular health.
  • Easier modification: If standing is difficult for your loved one, you can find online videos of seated dancing classes. You can find all types of music genres, too.

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Walking. Going for a stroll is perhaps the simplest form of exercise for someone living with dementia. Simply walking can be a great way to increase the heart rate and remain mobile. Plus, you’ll both get plenty of fresh air.
  • Easier modification: Even if someone has trouble walking, they may be able to ride on a stationary bike or help with simple chores around the house. Any movement throughout the day can help.

Staying positive and consistent

Ultimately, it’s important that physical activity brings your loved one joy and a sense of accomplishment. If they’re frustrated with certain types of exercise, it’s likely they won’t continue. Remain flexible and keep trying other activities until discovering something they find fun.
If your loved one with dementia is experiencing difficulty with activities beyond exercising, it may indicate their care needs are increasing. For example, if they’re having trouble managing activities of daily living such as bathing and dressing, it may be time to consider extra assistance.
Memory care communities can provide assistance with these types of daily tasks. Additionally, they often provide exercise classes and activities for seniors with varying abilities. If you’re considering senior care, a Senior Care Advisor can provide a free consultation service that helps families find senior care options in their area.


  1. [1] Mayo Clinic. (2020, Aug. 4). Balance exercises.

  2. [2] National Institute on Aging. (2017, May 18). Staying Physically Active with Alzheimer’s.

  3. [3] Teri, L., Logsdon, R., & McCurry, S. (2008, July). Exercise interventions for dementia and cognitive impairmentThe Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging.

Meet the Author
Chacour Koop

As a former family caregiver, Chacour Koop strives to bring practical knowledge about senior care to readers who are navigating this complex topic. He has published articles focused on Medicare, Medicaid, dementia, and wellness with a hope that other families can use the information to improve their lives. Before writing about senior living, he was a journalist with bylines in The Associated Press, Miami Herald, Sacramento Bee, and dozens of other publications. He earned a degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois Springfield.

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