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Why physical exercise is important to me: Hat’s story

As Alzheimer’s Research UK’s work gets underway to explore the links between sport and dementia risk, Hat Hewitt explores the positive impact sport and exercise has had not only on her life but also her mum’s, following her mum’s dementia diagnosis.

There are thousands of studies to prove that exercise can help with physical and mental health, including depression and anxiety. The release of endorphins can make you feel better almost immediately, and I say this based on not just years as an athlete in elite level sport but being a CrossFit gym owner and coach.

I see, as well as feel, the benefits of regular physical activity in the members of our gym as well as myself. Dealing with a diagnosis of a parent with dementia, a terminal illness, is not something that is easy to handle, and exercise was and still is an escape from that.

I have also seen how much our mental wellbeing depends on our physical health. Through lockdown we kept over 100 people healthy at home with workouts and loaned equipment from my gym. We saw the effect the daily workouts had on individuals, and I can truthfully say that those who continued to exercise seemed to suffer far less than those who stopped.
Experts at Alzheimer’s Research UK say what’s good for your heart is good for your brain. And while many of us probably know that being physically active will help lower your risk of heart disease –very few people realise you’ll be helping reduce your risk of dementia too.

Being physically active means different things to different people and CrossFit’s not for everyone, but simple positive changes that you can build upon and that you enjoy are good. The more you enjoy it, the more you’ll keep doing it – and the more your brain will thank you in the years ahead.

When our mum was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s called Posterior cortical atrophy (PCA) we knew there wasn’t a cure, but what we did know was that keeping her healthy physically, would be beneficial to her overall wellbeing as well as her ability to cope with the diagnosis.

I got to take my mum swimming and to my gym in her earlier years of diagnosis and people were always shocked to see her doing these things. While we can’t say for sure, my sisters and I are convinced that it was the continuation of these activities that slowed down the disease’s progress. The physical activity did wonders for her mood, and it kept her body healthy, but most importantly, it was good for our whole family.

The mental health of not just the person living with PCA, but those who live with or support them is integral to the ongoing welfare of that person. The role exercise has on keeping the brain healthy isn’t just important for now, it’s important forever. Whether it be regular walks, cycles or swims, or lifting weights in the gym, it all benefits our health, both physically and mentally.

Having the knowledge to keep myself and our mum fit and healthy and understanding the importance of exercise is invaluable.

As it becomes more apparent that physical exercise has a long-term positive effect on brain health, for me it is non-negotiable.

It’s important we get to the bottom of emerging evidence suggesting that some ex-professional sports players are at greater dementia risk. That’s why this new study from Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Health Policy Partnership looking at all the existing evidence and make recommendations for further research is crucial. Meanwhile, I will strive to continue being as physically and mentally healthy as I can to ensure that this awful disease is less likely to affect me in later life.

By continuing to invest the time into staying active, I hope to prolong my brain’s health for as long as I can.

To find out more about how you can protect your brain health visit:

Think Brain Health

About the author

Hat Hewitt

Hat Hewitt runs her own CrossFit gym in Watford and has experienced the benefits exercise has on people’s physical and mental wellbeing. She is keen to look after her own brain health as she has witnessed the impact of dementia first-hand.

Her mum Laura was diagnosed with a rare variant of Alzheimer’s, posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), at the age of 57 and has gradually deteriorated since that time. Hat and her sisters cared for their mum for a long time and exercise was both a way of keeping fit and helping support their mental health.

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