Can you believe it was an 80 year old man in a manual wheelchair who inspired me to enter my first triathlon back in 2005?! This gentleman lived in a Long Term Care residence and despite repeated failed attempts to safely maneuver an electric wheelchair; he still slowly propelled himself to the gym to lift weights twice a day. His mind was sharp and he believed in persevering through challenges and keeping active to the best of his abilities. When I felt too tired to ride my bike home or wanted to skip the gym to deal with other pressing chores, I thought of his inspiring tenacity and told myself “If he can do this, so can I”!
Aerobic and resistance training are part of a healthy lifestyle that can improve our mood, balance, physical functioning and benefit heart health and cognition. While the studies on physical activity and dementia prevention are complex and have varied results; some researchers have found evidence that exercise can be associated with reduced risk of dementia. More studies are needed on specific types of exercise and dementia prevention, but some research has shown resistance training can influence important brain functioning, especially in the frontal lobe. Executive functions, (eg. the ability to maintain attention, organize and plan), may also be supported by resistance training and it can lead to lower white matter atrophy and lower volumes of white matter lesions, which are linked to strokes and contributing to dementias.
In order to get the biggest physical and brain health benefits from resistance training it’s best for it to be done consistently across the whole lifespan, but it’s never too late to start! After a 22-week resistance training program that was conducted for older adults, some physical and cognitive improvements were made, but those improvements were lost after only 4 weeks of inactivity. So it’s important to keep it up! This doesn’t mean you need to be at the gym every day with heavy barbells. Benefits can be had using lighter weights or body resistance just twice a week. It’s important to target major upper and lower body muscle groups, think: squatting in a chair and bicep curls. Playing your favourite music, getting outside if you can or having a friend join in on the challenge can help with getting started.
I have now become a well-seasoned Ironman triathlete and still find myself inspired by the 80-year-old man who didn’t let his barriers get in the way. He spent more time getting down the hall and into the gym than he did once he was there and only lifted a few pounds, but the important thing is that he kept doing it.
While we wait for new trials to determine the degree of relevance of strength training and dementia prevention, for now, we do know it can increase strength and balance, improve bone health and reduce injury risks. Check with your doctor before you start any program and ask for recommendations that are best for you. You never know, by strengthening yourself, you might just be inspiring and strengthening someone else!
Has an event or special person inspired you toward your health and fitness goals? Share your positive stories with us below.
Dr. Romi Fung, ND, M.Sc and Alaina King, M.Sc.
Dr. Romi Fung, ND, M.Sc is a Naturopathic Physician practicing in Richmond, BC with clinical interests in working with patients living with dementia. Dr. Romi has completed additional training in the Bredesen Protocol for treating cognitive impairment, as well as graduate studies in Aging and Health. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D in Aging and Health from Queen's University and is an Adjunct Clinic Faculty at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine - Boucher Campus.
Alaina has a MSc in Aging & Health and is the owner of Grey Matters Tx. A registered professional Recreation Therapist and Certified Dementia Practitioner, Alaina has been working with older adults with dementia since 1998. In addition to Recreation Therapy, Alaina has worked in Community Patient Care Coordination and as a Staff Educator and Health & Safety Auditor in Long Term Care.
Medical Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional medical advice, or delay in seeking it, because of something you have read on this post.
Alty, J., et al. (2020). Exercise and Dementia Prevention. Practical Neurology, 20(3); 234-240. DOI: 10.1136/practneurol-2019-002335
Herold, et al. (2019). Functional and/or structural brain changes in response to resistance exercises and resistance training lead to cognitive improvements – a systematic review. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity 16(10). DOI: 10.1186/s11556-019-0217-2
Livingston, G., et al. (2020). Dementia prevention, intervention, and care: 2020 report of the Lancet Commission. The Lancet Commissions, 396(10248), 413-446. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)30367-6