Clinician Article

Exercise programs for people with dementia.

  • Forbes D
  • Forbes SC
  • Blake CM
  • Thiessen EJ
  • Forbes S
Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Apr 15;(4):CD006489. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006489.pub4. (Review)
PMID: 25874613
Read abstract Read full text
  • Geriatrics
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Psychiatry
    Relevance - 6/7
    Newsworthiness - 5/7
  • Family Medicine (FM)/General Practice (GP)
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7
  • General Internal Medicine-Primary Care(US)
    Relevance - 5/7
    Newsworthiness - 4/7


BACKGROUND: This is an update of our previous 2013 review. Several recent trials and systematic reviews of the impact of exercise on people with dementia are reporting promising findings.

OBJECTIVES: Primary objectiveDo exercise programs for older people with dementia improve their cognition, activities of daily living (ADLs), neuropsychiatric symptoms, depression, and mortality? Secondary objectivesDo exercise programs for older people with dementia have an indirect impact on family caregivers' burden, quality of life, and mortality?Do exercise programs for older people with dementia reduce the use of healthcare services (e.g. visits to the emergency department) by participants and their family caregivers?

SEARCH METHODS: We identified trials for inclusion in the review by searching ALOIS (www.medicine.ox.ac.uk/alois), the Cochrane Dementia and Cognitive Improvement Group's Specialised Register, on 4 September 2011, on 13 August 2012, and again on 3 October 2013.

SELECTION CRITERIA: In this review, we included randomized controlled trials in which older people, diagnosed with dementia, were allocated either to exercise programs or to control groups (usual care or social contact/activities) with the aim of improving cognition, ADLs, neuropsychiatric symptoms, depression, and mortality. Secondary outcomes related to the family caregiver(s) and included caregiver burden, quality of life, mortality, and use of healthcare services.

DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Independently, at least two authors assessed the retrieved articles for inclusion, assessed methodological quality, and extracted data. We analysed data for summary effects. We calculated mean differences or standardized mean difference (SMD) for continuous data, and synthesized data for each outcome using a fixed-effect model, unless there was substantial heterogeneity between studies, when we used a random-effects model. We planned to explore heterogeneity in relation to severity and type of dementia, and type, frequency, and duration of exercise program. We also evaluated adverse events.

MAIN RESULTS: Seventeen trials with 1067 participants met the inclusion criteria. However, the required data from three included trials and some of the data from a fourth trial were not published and not made available. The included trials were highly heterogeneous in terms of subtype and severity of participants' dementia, and type, duration, and frequency of exercise. Only two trials included participants living at home.Our meta-analysis revealed that there was no clear evidence of benefit from exercise on cognitive functioning. The estimated standardized mean difference between exercise and control groups was 0.43 (95% CI -0.05 to 0.92, P value 0.08; 9 studies, 409 participants). There was very substantial heterogeneity in this analysis (I² value 80%), most of which we were unable to explain, and we rated the quality of this evidence as very low. We found a benefit of exercise programs on the ability of people with dementia to perform ADLs in six trials with 289 participants. The estimated standardized mean difference between exercise and control groups was 0.68 (95% CI 0.08 to 1.27, P value 0.02). However, again we observed considerable unexplained heterogeneity (I² value 77%) in this meta-analysis, and we rated the quality of this evidence as very low. This means that there is a need for caution in interpreting these findings.In further analyses, in one trial we found that the burden experienced by informal caregivers providing care in the home may be reduced when they supervise the participation of the family member with dementia in an exercise program. The mean difference between exercise and control groups was -15.30 (95% CI -24.73 to -5.87; 1 trial, 40 participants; P value 0.001). There was no apparent risk of bias in this study. In addition, there was no clear evidence of benefit from exercise on neuropsychiatric symptoms (MD -0.60, 95% CI -4.22 to 3.02; 1 trial, 110 participants; P value .0.75), or depression (SMD 0.14, 95% CI -0.07 to 0.36; 5 trials, 341 participants; P value 0.16). We could not examine the remaining outcomes, quality of life, mortality, and healthcare costs, as either the appropriate data were not reported, or we did not retrieve trials that examined these outcomes.

AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: There is promising evidence that exercise programs may improve the ability to perform ADLs in people with dementia, although some caution is advised in interpreting these findings. The review revealed no evidence of benefit from exercise on cognition, neuropsychiatric symptoms, or depression. There was little or no evidence regarding the remaining outcomes of interest (i.e., mortality, caregiver burden, caregiver quality of life, caregiver mortality, and use of healthcare services).

Clinical Comments


This is another usual, excellent Cochrane review. Unfortunately, it states what we already know: exercise of course does not help dementia. We can tell our families and patients not to feel guilty about not exercising.


Useful article, as this contradicts our belief that exercise is a mainstay in improving various declining functions in Geriatric age group.


Further better quality research is likely to have an important impact in the estimate of effect, and it is likely that the results might change especially in neuropsychiatry symptoms.

Register for free access to all Professional content

Want the latest in aging research? Sign up for our email alerts.

Support for the Portal is largely provided by the Labarge Optimal Aging Initiative. AGE-WELL is a contributing partner. Help us to continue to provide direct and easy access to evidence-based information on health and social conditions to help you stay healthy, active and engaged as you grow older. Donate Today.

© 2012 - 2020 McMaster University | 1280 Main Street West | Hamilton, Ontario L8S4L8 | +1 905-525-9140 | Terms Of Use