Effects of Limb Exercises on Individuals with Dementia: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials

Research Article

Effects of Limb Exercises on Individuals with Dementia: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials

*Corresponding author: Dr. Shihui Chen, Texas A&M University Texarkana, USA.

Abstract Purpose: This meta-analytic study focused on investigating the effectiveness of using limb exercises on cognition, mood, and mobility among people with Alzheimer’s disease.Method: Articles were searched from major electronic databases (i.e., PsycINFO, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and SPORTDiscus) and hand search from inception till December 2013. Selected studies must meet following criteria: (i) randomized controlled trials; (ii) participants were with Alzheimer’s disease; (iii) limb exercises as intervention; and (iv) cognitive, mood, or mobility outcomes were reported.

Results: The literature search led to a total of 677 articles and seven studies were included. Meta-analytic results showed that limb exercises had a moderate to large positive effect on participants’ overall cognitive function, 0.70 (95%CI = 0.36-1.10). Participants’ executive function, learning memory, short-term memory, mood, and mobility were not enhanced through limb exercise interventions.

Conclusion: There is a trend that limb exercises can positively improve overall cognitive function in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. There is lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of limb exercises on executive function, learning memory, shortterm memory, mood, and mobility for this population. More well-designed studies are needed to examine the efficacy of limb exercises on these interested outcomes.

Keywords: Dementia, Limb Exercise; Cognition; Mood; Meta-Analysis



With the elderly population growing dramatically, people 65 plus are expected to increase to 20-25% of total population over the next 25 years [31]. It has been well documented that the incidence of dementia and cognitive impairment is increasing with aging [30]. The epidemiological studies reported that older adults who maintain higher levels of physical activities reduced risk for mild cognitive impairment function and dementia. Many research findings have consistently provided the evidence of physical exercises related to cognitive benefits and reduced risk of dementia [1]. Despite the evidence of the benefits of physical exercises or activities for cognitive function or reduce the incidences of dementia, there is a controversy about the effectiveness of types of exercises and activities and systematic practice of physical activities on reducing risk of cognitive function impairment and dementia. Limbs exercises, especially hands exercises and activities, are believed having special contributions to improve cognitive function, however, whether limbs exercises and activities can effectively reduce cognitive function impairment and decrease the risk of dementia, still remaining unclear in the literature. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to use the systematic review and meta-analytic method to analyze the effects of limb exercises and activities on cognition, mood, mobility, and decreasing the risk of cognitive function impairment and dementia among people with Alzheimer’s disease.


Data source and search strategy

This research was conducted following the procedures of the Cochrane Collaboration [3]. Articles published in English language were initially identified by one author from the five major electronic databases from inception until December 27, 2013: PsycINFO, MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, and SPORTDiscus). Three groups of keywords were used for the search: (i) “Alzheirmer’s disease” OR “dementia” OR “cognitive impairment*”; AND (ii) “exercise” OR “physical activity” OR “upper limb” OR “lower limb” OR “extremity” OR “walking” OR “jogging” OR “hand movement” OR “foot exercise” OR “strength training” OR “stretching”, which were combined with “OR”; “Alzheimer’s disease”, “dementia” and “cognitive impairment”; AND (iii) “randomized controlled trail*” OR “intervention”. Additional articles were manually searched from the relevant reviews and reference lists initially identified above. Inclusion and exclusion criteria Articles that fulfilled all the following inclusion criteria were included: (i) participants were diagnosed with Alzheirmer’s disease; (ii) study design was an RCT; (iii) limb exercises such as walking, hand movement, and stretching training were used as the only or major component of the intervention; (iv) outcomes regarding cognitive, physical, or emotional function were reported. Articles were excluded if (i) participants did not have an Alzheimer’s disease or the study recruited mixed participants without presenting separated outcomes for individuals with dementia; (ii) limb exercises were not used as the (major) intervention or information about the intervention program was lack; (iii) an RCT design was not used; (iv) they did not report cognitive, emotional, or functional mobility outcomes; or (v) they were published in non-English language journals. Two authors independently screened the searched articles by reading titles, abstracts, and full-texts (if necessary) based on these inclusion and exclusion criteria. All the authors agreed with the final list of studies included in this research.

Data extraction and analysis

Two authors independently extracted the following information from the included studies: authors, country, participants’ characteristics, intervention program, and outcome measures, and results (i.e., mean and standard deviation of outcomes). Meta-analysis was conducted through the RevMan 5.2. To assess the heterogeneity of the pooled effect size (ES), Cochran’s Q test and I2 statistic were used (4. Higgins, Thompson, Deeks, & Altman, 2003). The fixed-effect model was selected when a p value was greater than 0.1 and I2 was less than 50%; otherwise, the random effect model was used for meta-analysis. Given the small number of the included studies, further analyses were not conducted to detect the sources of heterogeneity. In the similar vein, we did not evaluate the publication bias within this review.

Risk of bias assessment

To evaluate the methodological quality of the included studies, The Cochrane Collaboration’s tool for assessing risk of bias was used [4]. This assessment tool was agreed to obtain the best available evidence of bias. This tool consisted of seven criteria: random sequence generation, allocation concealment, blinding of participants and personnel, blinding of outcome assessment, incomplete outcome data, selective reporting and other bias. Based on the criteria, a judgment of low bias, unclear bias, or high bias was assigned to each study. Two independent reviewers rated the included studies and a third reviewer was involved in case of disagreement of rating.

Results Study selection

Our search yielded 677 articles. Through screening the information of titles and abstracts of searched studies using the pre-determined inclusion and exclusion criteria, 641 articles were excluded. Subsequently, full-texts of the 36 remaining articles were referred and 31 articles were further excluded. Two studies were identified by hand-searching the relevant review studies and reference lists of the searched studies. Thus, a total of seven articles were included in the current study (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Diagram of The Study Selection Process

Characteristics of participants

The characteristics of studies included are shown in Table 1. Most of the studies were published after 2005 (1991-2011). These studies were conducted in United States (n = 3), Netherlands (n = 2), South Korea (n = 1), and France (n = 1). A total of 334 participants (experimental group = 175, control group = 159) were recruited with the mean total sample size for each study was 47.7 (30-97). Participants’ mean age ranged from 71.8 to 88.2 years.


Six studies used walking or combined walking with other components (e.g., upper extremity exercise) as the intervention. One study employed hand movement [5] in its intervention program. The duration of intervention program ranged from six weeks to 12 months. Participants were generally required to involve in two to five training sessions each week and each training session lasted for about 30 to 60 min.

Outcome measures

Five studies assessed participants’ cognitive function using the Mini-Mental State Examination [6], theWechsler Memory Scale-Revised [7], the Rapid Evaluation of Cognitive Functions Test [8], and the Riverhead Behavioral Memory Test [9].Two studies determined participants’ functional mobility using the 6-Mintue Walk [10] and the Acute Care Index of Function [11]. Two studies evaluated participants’ mood through the Geriatric Depression Scale [12], the Anxiety from the Symptom Check List [13], the Dementia Mood Assessment Scale [14], and the Alzheimer’s Mood Scale [15].

First author (year) Country Age (years) Participants (n) Study duration Frequency Experimental






United States Exp: 71.8

Con: 73.9

Exp: 15

Con: 15

12 weeks 30 min/session, 3 times/week Walking & conversation Conversation Cognitive function


South Korea Exp: 79.67

Con: 82.27

Exp: 15

Con: 15

12 months 30-60 min/session, 2-3 times/week Walking, stretching & upper/lower extremity exercises No treatment Cognitive function &

Physical function

Williams (2008) United States 87.9 Exp: 19

Con: 12

16 weeks 30 min/session, 5 times/week Walking Conversation Mood
Eggermonta (2009) Netherlands 85.4 Exp: 51

Con: 46

6 weeks 30 min/session, 5 times/week Walking Social visits Cognitive function
Eggermonta (2009) Netherlands Exp: 85.0

Con: 84.2

Exp: 30

Con: 31

6 weeks 30 min/session, 5 times/week Hand movement Read aloud Cognitive function & Mood


France Con: 82

Exp: 81.7

Exp: 16

Con: 15

15 weeks 60 min/session, 3 times/week Walking, equilibrium, stamina & intellectual activities Intellectual activities Cognitive function
Roach  (2011) United States Con: 87.31

Exp: 88.24

Exp: 29

Con: 25

16 weeks 30 min/session, 5times/week Walking Conversation Physical function

Note. Exp = Experimental Group; Con = Control Group; NA = Not Available.

Table 1: Characteristics of Studies Included

Study quality

Figure 2 and Table 2 presents the results of methodological assessment of studies included. Most studies (n = 5) adequately generated the allocation sequence. Only three studies showed concealed allocation. All seven studies either had bias of binding of participants or presented insufficient details for our judgment. However, four studies blinded the assessors. Three studies failed to adequately address the incomplete outcome data. In general, most studies (n = 4) were free of suggestion of selective outcome reporting and three studies reported insufficient information for us to determine.

Figure 2: Methodological Assessment for Risk of Bias Graph: Review Authors’ Judgments About Each Risk of Bias Item Presented as Percentages Across All Included Studies.

First author


Random sequence generation Allocation concealment Binding of participants Blinding of outcome assessment Incomplete outcome data Selective reporting Other bias
Friedman (1991) Yes Yes Unclear Unclear Yes Yes Unclear
Kwak (2008) Unclear Unclear Unclear Unclear Yes Yes Unclear
Williams (2008) Yes Yes No Yes Yes Unclear Unclear
Eggermonta (2009) Yes Unclear Unclear Yes No Yes Unclear
Eggermonta (2009) Yes Unclear Unclear Yes Unclear Unclear Unclear
Kemoun (2010) Yes Yes No Unclear No Unclear Unclear
Roach (2011) Unclear Unclear Unclear Yes No Yes Unclear

Table 2
:Results of Assessment of Risk of Bias

Cognitive Outcome

Three studies assessed participants’ overall cognitive function [16,17]. The intervention improved participants’ overall cognitive function, standardized mean difference (SMD) = 0.70, 95%CI (0.36, 1.10), p < .01, I2 = 44%, Q (2) = 3.56, p = .17 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Meta-Analytic Result of Overall Cognitive Function

Two studies evaluated participants’ executive function [18,19]. The results indicated that the experiment show no effect on improving participants’ executive function, SMD = 0.04, 95%CI (-0.38, 0.47), p = .85, I2 = 44%, Q(1) = 1.78, p = .18 (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: Meta-Analytic Result of Executive Function

Two studies determined participants’ learning memory and short-term memory ability [18,19]. The meta-analytic results suggested that limb exercises cannot facilitate participants’ learning memory, SMD = 0.03, 95%CI (-0.50, 0.55), p = .92, I2 = 63%, Q(1) = 2.69, p = .10 as well as their short-term memory ability, SMD = 0.03, 95%CI (-0.28, 0.34), p = .86, I2 = 0%, Q(1) = 0.24, p = .63 (see Figures 5 and 6).

                                                                          Figure 5: Meta-Analytic Result of Learning Memory

Figure 6: Meta-Analytic Result of Short-Term Memory Ability

Mood outcome

Two studies measured participants’ mood [18,19]. The meta-analytic result suggested limb exercises cannot improve participants’ mood, SMD = -0.14, 95%CI (-0.55, 0.27), p = .51, I2 = 0%, Q(1) = 0.31, p = .58 (see Figure 7).

Figure 7: Meta-Analytic Result of Mood

Functional mobility outcome

Two studies assessed participants’ functional mobility [21,22]. Our analysis showed that the intervention had no effect on promoting participants’ functional mobility, SMD = 0.80, 95%CI (-0.76, 2.35), p = .32, I2 = 90%, Q(1) = 9.79, p < .01 (see Figure 8).


The present meta-analytic study firstly investigated the benefits of limb exercises on cognitive performance, mood, and functional mobility among people with Alzheimer’s disease. Only seven articles were included in this study and six of which were published in the western countries, implying the need to conduct more studies within the field. According to the results of methodological assessment, most studies provided insufficient details making the judgments difficulty. Future investigations need to account the methodological quality especially for blinding participants/assessors. The rest of this section will revolve around discussing the three outcomes (i.e., cognition, mood, and mobility).

Firstly, our meta-analytic result showed that limb exercises improved participants’ overall cognitive function with a moderate to high ES (.70). This finding is similar to the early study [23], which found that exercise interventions facilitated overall cognitive function among people with dementia. Our study, however, indicated that limb exercises failed to change participants’ executive function, learning memory, and short-term memory. One possibility is that the duration of the intervention programs of the included studies were too short (i.e., six weeks) to find a positive effect. A limb exercise program with longer duration may lead to positive changes of executive function, learning memory, and short-term memory.

Secondly, based on analyzing two included studies [18,19], we found that participants’ mood was not improved by limb exercise programs (i.e., walking). This might be because the control group of these two included studies used either social visits or casual conversations as a comparison. Social interaction has been found to improve old adults’ mood [24].

Lastly, the effectiveness of limb exercises on participants’ mobility was meta-analytically investigated based on the two included studies [21,22]. The result showed no positive effect of limb exercises on mobility but with a large effect size (0.80). If we look into each of the included studies, it seems that the duration of intervention resulted in a difference. The study by Kwak et al. (2008) found a significant and large effect (SMD = 1.63) with a 12-month intervention period, whereas Raoch et al. (2011) used a 4-month intervention program and found no change. Another possibility is the difference of the intervention program used between the two studies. The one with mixed components (i.e., walking combined with stretching and upper/lower extremity exercises) showed more positive effect on improving participants’ mobility.

Similar to most of the previous meta-analytic studies, this study was also limited to include only those articles published in English, which may exclude relevant studies in other languages. Bearing this limitation in mind, this study showed that there is a trend that limb exercises can enhance overall cognitive function among people with dementia. Given a small number of studies included, it is still unclear whether limb exercises can bring positive changes of mood and mobility for this population. We believe that the current review study shall shed light on the future research efforts within the field.


There is a trend that limb exercises can positively improve overall cognitive function in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. There is lack of evidence regarding the effectiveness of limb exercises on executive function, learning memory, short-term memory, mood, and mobility for this population. More well-designed studies are needed to examine the efficacy of limb exercises on these interested outcomes.

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