Q+A with researcher, professor and DREAM team member Laura Middleton.
This article was written by a guest contributor, and the views, thoughts and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author.
Laura Middleton was always an athlete growing up. Not necessarily coordinated, she chose sports where she could work hard and race others — swimming, running and rowing. When she first started doing research, she focused on sport performance.
Her direction and passions changed when her aunt was diagnosed with young onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 46. Now, her research aims to identify programs and strategies to improve lives of people like her aunt — to reduce dementia risk and improve the well-being of people diagnosed with dementia. She focuses on the role of physical activity alongside other wellness supports such as healthy eating, social engagement and cognitive stimulation.
Here, Middleton discusses the benefits of physical activity for people living with dementia and the ongoing DREAM project, which promotes physical activity and healthy eating:
Q: What are the benefits of physical activity for people living with dementia?
A: Physical activity can improve the physical, mental and social well-being of people living with dementia, just like it can for other people. Even if you have never been a regular exerciser, taking up physical activity can make your heart, muscles and bones stronger.
Physical activity can improve your ability to function independently day-to-day and continue activities that are important to you, such as walking or hiking with friends, lifting your grandchildren and dancing with your family. There’s also building evidence that being physically active can help you maintain your thinking abilities even if you have dementia.
Though all these benefits are important, people living with dementia often speak first of the mental and social value of physical activity.
Indeed, physical activities can be an opportunity for success. Even after a diagnosis of dementia, you can improve your strength and fitness with exercise. Physical activity programs can also be an opportunity to meet friends and connect with others. Physical activity can improve your mood in the short and long term and reduce your risk of depression.
Q: How can a person living with dementia become more physically active?
A: Physical activity can look different for each person — it can be working on your farm, dancing at home or at celebrations, or swimming at the local pool or lake. I like to think that everyone can find a physical activity that they enjoy and someone to enjoy the activity with.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
The word exercise can be intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be. You don’t need to go to a gym to be physically active. Walking is a great way to get started. Walk at a pace that challenges you — where you breathe a little faster and your heart works a bit harder. Of course, walking can be more difficult in Canadian winters. During the winter months, you can walk at indoor shopping centres or community centres or take up a different activity.
Strength training can also help you stay strong enough to do chores independently and lift your grandchildren for hugs and cuddles. Strength training can be as simple as standing from a chair and sitting back down again, repeatedly. This ‘sit to stand’ exercise is a great way to strengthen your leg muscles.
If you want more guidance, you can talk to an exercise professional. If you have health conditions, it’s also good to talk to a health-care professional before you start a physical activity program for the first time.
One physical activity program that is targeted to people living with dementia is the Minds in Motion program that is offered through the Alzheimer Society. You might want to check it out and see if it’s a good fit for you.
Q: What projects are you working on?
A: We always have lots of projects on the go, but one project that comes to mind is our DREAM (Dementia Resources for Eating, Activity, and Meaningful inclusion) project.
Our team of researchers, people living with dementia, care partners and community service providers came together with the aim of increasing the number and quality of physical activity, healthy eating and wellness supports that are available to people living with dementia.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability enshrines the rights of persons with disability, including people living with dementia, to equal access to programs and services that benefit their health, function and well-being.
But dementia-specific programs cannot be enough. People living with dementia have diverse abilities, experiences and preferences for programs. They must have equal access to physical activity, healthy eating and wellness programs and services in their communities.
To this end, our DREAM project team worked together to develop training and resources for community service providers, people living with dementia and care partners. The purpose of the training is to educate community service providers about dementia and how to support and include people living with dementia in their programs.
If you have a community centre around the corner, we want you to be able to participate in the programs there! Within the DREAM project, we also created resources and booklets for people living with dementia and their friends and families. These resources aim to give you the knowledge and confidence to be physically active and eat well.
We co-developed all the training and resources in the DREAM project with people living with dementia, care partners and community service providers from across the country. It was important to us that the voices of people living with dementia were captured throughout. The highlight of our resources is likely our video series that captures the perspectives and experiences of people living with dementia and care partners.
Q: What is next for the DREAM project?
A: The DREAM project is funded by the Public Health Agency of Canada. We are in the midst of evaluating the impact of the training and resources that we created.
If you are a person living with dementia or care partner who is interested in learning more about physical activity or healthy eating, we’d love to have you involved. We want to know how your knowledge and confidence for physical activity and healthy eating changes after reviewing the resources. We also want to hear your feedback on how we can make our resources even better!