The effect of exercise on behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia: towards a research agenda

Int Psychogeriatr. 2012 Jul;24(7):1046-57. doi: 10.1017/S1041610211002365. Epub 2011 Dec 15.


Background: Behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia (BPSD) are common and are core symptoms of the condition. They cause considerable distress to the person with dementia and their carers and predict early institutionalization and death. Historically, these symptoms have been managed with anxiolytic and antipsychotic medication. Although potentially effective, such medication has been used too widely and is associated with serious adverse side-effects and increased mortality. Consequently, there is a need to evaluate non-pharmacological therapies for behavioral and psychological symptoms in this population. One such therapy is physical activity, which has widespread health benefits. The aim of this review is to summarize the current findings of the efficacy of physical activity on BPSD.

Method: Published articles were identified using electronic and manual searches. Rather than systematically aggregating data, this review adopted a rapid critical interpretive approach to synthesize the literature.

Results: Exercise appears to be beneficial in reducing some BPSD, especially depressed mood, agitation, and wandering, and may also improve night-time sleep. Evidence of the efficacy of exercise on improving other symptoms such as anxiety, apathy, and repetitive behaviors is currently weak or lacking.

Conclusion: The beneficial effect of exercise type, its duration, and frequency is unclear although some studies suggest that walking for at least 30 minutes, several times a week, may enhance outcome. The methodological shortcomings of current work in this area are substantial. The research and clinical implications of current findings are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Biomedical Research
  • Dementia / psychology
  • Dementia / therapy*
  • Depression / therapy
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Humans
  • Motor Activity
  • Psychomotor Agitation / therapy