In a pilot study, agitation and functioning improved in a group of elderly nursing home residents suffering from severe dementia when they engaged in just 30 minutes of supervised exercise three times a week.

Edris Aman, a second-year medical student at Saint Louis University School of Medicine in Missouri, who conducted the study, told Reuters Health: "Lots of people just assume that people with this kind of (severe) dementia cannot follow exercise instructions, but they can. It just takes more patience on the part of the exercise coordinator — me in this case."

Aman said his study is unique because it involved people suffering from severe dementia who were living in the "special needs" units of two nursing homes. The 50 study participants, whose average age was 79, performed 15 minutes of aerobic exercise and 15 minutes of weight lifting three times a week.

"Before and after" tests revealed that patients were far less agitated after completing the 3-week exercise program. They also showed significant improvement in their functional status — specifically, the distance they could walk in six minutes.

Aman, who presented his research today at the annual meeting of the American Geriatrics Society, said there didn't seem to be an improvement in depression with exercise; however, this was a "very low dose of exercise," he said, and "there are a lot of studies that are emerging" that do show a benefit of exercise on depression.

The take-home message, Aman said, is that "exercise benefits all; even those with severe dementia can reap the benefits of exercise if people are patient enough."