Every day – sometimes twice a day – come wind, rain or shine, Sion Jair climbs and descends the 803 metres of the Old Man of Coniston in the heart of the Lake District. The 67-year-old is in his element during these walks, as much as a curlew in the wind or sheep grazing on a hillside. And since being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s four years ago, Jair, pictured above, has found his daily hike soothes and exercises his mind. Having walked the route more than 5,000 times, he knows every single ridge, ravine and rock.
“I’ve been navigating in the mountains for 50 years. The skills and techniques are embedded in me,” he says. “My dementia only prevents me from learning new things but doesn’t affect what I already know.” A comforting, reassuring and sustaining ritual, he credits it with delaying the progress of Alzheimer’s.
Exercise in general seems to be one of the best things you can do to improve brain function
His inspirational story gained widespread attention as an example of coping with serious illness by focusing on the things we enjoy most. And it is testament to the fundamental power of walking, proving what science, psychology and sociology have long known to be true.
Be it for exploration, exercise, escape, self-examination, solitude or simply nipping down the shops, a long trek or a short stroll in a rural or urban environment, put one foot in front of the other and see where it leads you this summer. And while you’re at it, switch off your smartphone and shut down the satnav. Disconnect, unplug, unravel, get outside of yourself and – with obvious caution – don’t be afraid to get a little lost in the process. Be adventurous, be curious. Be alone if you need to be.
“It is still not totally clear why exercise in general, and walking in particular, should have this positive effect,” says neuroscientist and writer Ben Martynoga. “Increased blood flow to the brain is probably one factor. That blood will bring fuel and oxygen to brain cells, helping them function well.
“Exercise also seems to stimulate protein molecules in the brain – the best studied one is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF for short, which can improve the health of neurons and can also encourage them to grow and to form new connections.