Exercises by Stages

Leading a physically active lifestyle can have a significant impact on well-being. Exercise is beneficial for physical and mental health and can improve the quality of life for people in all stages of dementia. It includes a wide range of physical activities from walking across the room or gardening to dancing. This factsheet explains why keeping physically active is important for people with dementia, gives examples of suitable exercises and physical activities for people in different stages of dementia, and suggests how much activity is appropriate.

Benefits of exercise and physical activity

Benefits include:

  • improving general cardiovascular health (relating to the heart and blood vessels) – it can reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease
  • reducing the risk of some types of cancer (in particular breast and colon cancer), stroke and type 2 diabetes
  • improving physical function – maintaining muscle strength and joint flexibility can be a way of helping people maintain independence for longer
  • helping to keep bones strong and reducing the risk of osteoporosis (a disease that affects the bones, making them weak and more likely to break)
  • improved cognition – recent studies have shown that exercise may improve memory and slow down mental decline
  • improving sleep
  • opportunities for social interaction and reducing the feeling of isolation
  • reducing the risk of falls – physical activity can improve strength and balance, and help to counteract the fear of falling
  • enhanced confidence about the body and its capabilities – through improved body image and a sense of achievement.

Before you start

When thinking about exercise, it is important to consider the person’s abilities, needs and preferences. Some people will have participated in regular exercise over the years and the concept will not be new, while others might have exercised very little.

People who have not taken part in any formal exercise for some time or those with any of the health issues listed below should seek medical advice from a GP, physiotherapist or relevant healthcare professional before commencing any new physical activity:

  • heart problems
  • high blood pressure
  • unexplained chest pain
  • dizziness or fainting
  • bone or joint problems (that exercise may make worse)
  • breathing problems
  • balance problems
  • frequent falls.

These health conditions might not stop someone from participating in exercise, but professional advice is recommended.

It is important to choose activities that are suitable and enjoyable. Exercise can be done on a one-to-one basis or in a small group. Some people may like to try a few different activities to see what suits them best.

Exercise in the early to mid stages of dementia

There are many suitable exercise opportunities that may be beneficial for people in this stage of dementia. Local community or sports centres often provide a range of organised exercise and physical activity sessions such as seated exercises, tai chi, music and dance, indoor bowls or swimming. Some of these activities can be modified and carried out at home. In addition, walking, gardening and housework are also good forms of exercise.


Gardening is a physical activity that provides an opportunity to get outdoors and is enjoyed by many people. The activity can be varied to suit the person’s abilities – from general tidying to weeding, raking up leaves and watering the plants. There is also the satisfaction of watching the plants grow and enjoying their colours, smells and textures. Gardening can be an enjoyable activity for people at all stages of dementia. If the person does not have a garden, tending to indoor plants or flowers can be enjoyable as well.

Indoor bowls/skittles

Some people may retain their bowling skills or continue to participate in other ball games, and so may enjoy indoor carpet bowls or skittles. Some local leisure centres offer indoor bowls sessions or sets can be purchased from toy or sports stores.

Music and dance

Dancing to music can range from structured tea dances, and couple or group sessions, to more improvised movement involving ribbons, balloons or balls. Dancing to music can also be done in a seated position. Music can trigger past memories and emotions, which can be shared. This is a very social activity and an enjoyable way to participate in exercise. It can increase strength and flexibility, help with staying steady and agile, and reduce stress.

Seated exercises

People with dementia can benefit from a regular programme of seated exercise sessions at home or with a group at a local class. These exercises are aimed at building or maintaining muscle strength and balance, but are less strenuous than exercises in a standing position. Some examples of seated exercises include:

  • marching
  • turning the body from side to side
  • raising the heels and toes
  • bending the arms
  • bending the legs
  • clapping under the legs
  • bicycling the legs
  • making circles with the arms
  • raising the opposite arm and leg
  • practising moving from sitting to standing.


Swimming, under supervision, is a good activity for people with dementia. While there is limited scientific evidence of the benefit, many people find the sensation of being in the water soothing and calming.

Pages: 1 2