Combining movement and enjoyment – Experiences of seated exercise at dementia cafés

As summer draws to a close Becky Oatley, one of our sport and dementia PhD students reflects on her experiences from the past few months. (Photos, names and quotes are used with permission from participants). Over to Becky…

This summer has provided a plethora of international sport to distract me from my PhD research. From the Lionesses capturing my heart at the women’s world cup, to the dramatic twists in the cricket, to a trip to Liverpool for the netball world cup, there have been some sporting moments I’ll remember for quite some time.

Closer to home, there are some sporting images that will stick in my mind too. The look of joy on Jean’s face as she caught the ball for the first time in Evesham, the energy buzzing from Hilary as she gushed about seated zumba and the pride Henry took in how quickly he rolled up his elastic band.

This summer, I have been lucky enough to combine my PhD research with some sporting adventures to dementia cafés across Worcestershire. Under the guise of trying to locate some participants for my research, I roped in some colleagues from the School of Sport and Exercise to come and support my mission.

Tom Howard and Dr. Susie Scriven are the brains and the brawn (I’ll let them battle out who is who) behind the Senior Physical Activity Programme here at the University of Worcester. Every week, they have approximately 250 older adults attend a variety of activities including walking sports, seated exercise and circuit training.

We visited five cafés in all, allowing me an opportunity to share a brief insight into my own research. Alongside talking sporting histories and sharing memories, Tom and Susie led a taster session of seated exercise to café members.

I won’t pretend we weren’t nervous going into the first café. Would people get involved? How would it go down? Would people even turn up if they knew there was exercise?

After my brief intro, Tom and Susie took over. The café was encouraged to form a large circle of chairs. Understandably, a few nervous bodies were reluctant to jump in, but that was ok – people were reassured that they could join in from where they were sitting too if they wanted. Cue musical faves from Abba, the Beach Boys and ELO, and everyone was tapping along.

It was simple Susie told us, “just copy what I’m doing.”


Well let’s just say it was a leveller! Tap your feet, move your hands, now tap your feet and move your hands. Trust me, having international caps for your country does not make this stuff easy! Laughing at my own struggles, I looked around the circle to see how others were getting on…There was Mary seamlessly following Susie’s lead, a few chairs along, former rugby player, George, was concentrating hard, but with a great deal of success. Then I caught the eye of Bob who seemed to be more on my level. We laughed at each other, but carried on, then thrilled when either of us got a hang of the current pattern.

Looking around that room, I had no idea who had dementia and who didn’t. All I could see was slightly pink cheeks, a bead of sweat here and there and some fierce concentration faces alternating with smiles and laughter. Smiles at personal success, laughter at missing a beat. The introduction of soft balls and elastic bands meant communication with people at other points in the circle. Imaginations were captured, skill was demonstrated, minds were focussed and faces were beaming.

“Oh my gosh, that was brilliant. I loved it – can Tom come back every month?” Margaret, carer, Worcester

“I loved that – it was great. It took me back to my days when I went dancing” Barbara, living with dementia, Redditch

“We really enjoyed it. I can’t do much any more because of my knees, I never thought of doing it in a chair!” Wendy, carer, Evesham

“Oh yes, I like feeling my muscles do some work!” George, living with dementia, Malvern

Participants doing a ball exercise

Participants passing a ball

To the seated exercise aficionado, the sessions might not have looked much; perhaps even a little chaotic. But make no mistake, these were expertly led by Susie and Tom. Their experience and confidence as instructors recognised that the most important goals were movement and enjoyment. Banter with the café members, friendly challenges and paying attention to every level of success instantly made them a hit with the group. Recognising that David, a former football player, now living with dementia, would be engaged by pretending to the head the ball, a pretend header was incorporated into the ball routine.

People were moving and people were enjoying themselves – the sessions seemed a great success. The feedback was very positive. This was not just about physical fitness, but this was also about wellness and enjoyment, key motivators to any activity.

The Dementia Cafés across Worcestershire are part of the Dementia Wellbeing Service in Worcestershire. The service, a partnership between Age UK Herefordshire & Worcestershire and Onside Advocacy, provides information, support & guidance to help people live well with dementia.

Dementia Wellbeing Community Engagement Specialist, Lucy Bird, said:

“We try to vary the activities at the Dementia Cafés across Worcestershire to include music, the arts, information and physical activity. Encouraging people living with Dementia and their carers to think about physical activity as something they can easily do at home and have fun with is fantastic.

Becky, Susie and Tom have made exercise something everyone can do and have a laugh at the same time. It’s been a joy to see the groups really enjoy themselves and join in with these sessions. Many of the participants are hoping we’ll do more of this in the future.”

Contact to find out more.
Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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