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.
“There is evidence that walking can improve learning and memory,” Martynoga continues. “Exercise in general seems to be one of the best things you can do to improve brain function. Many studies show it is much more effective than so-called ‘brain training’ games and activities.”
Read more about walking, nature holidays and the joy of switching off – including celebrity tips – in this week’s bumper 64-page Big Issue, on sale now
While it’s impossible to be sure if Jair’s Old Man of Coniston ritual has truly slowed the onset of his Alzheimer’s, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that walking helps to stem cognitive decline as people age, as Martynoga explains.
“Our brains shrink as we get older. Walking and other forms of exercise can have quite a dramatic effect to slow or even reverse some of that shrinkage,” he says. “Part of the brain called the hippocampus, crucial for many aspects of learning and memory seems to respond very well to exercise in young people and older people alike.”
Our brains shrink as we get older. Walking can have quite a dramatic effect on slowing that shrinkage
There’s a neurological windfall too from surprising and testing our brain as we go – shoving it out of its comfort zone, making it function in ways it is unused to. Which is why it’s worth switching off your smart devices when you strike out and go off-grid from our hyper-connected society (don’t worry, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat will still be there when you get back).
Martynoga says: “Think of the cliché of inspiration arriving suddenly and unexpectedly whilst you’re in the shower, or strolling in the woods. When you step back from the pressures of everyday life, things that you’ve been consciously thinking about and problems you’ve been actively trying to solve don’t disappear.
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“There is evidence that the unconscious parts of your brain keep chipping away at these challenges and your mind can wander, exploring possible solutions. Sometimes your brain makes unexpected links or suddenly finds answers. This can feel like an ‘aha’ moment.”
It’s always nice to enjoy a walk in good company – Jair is often accompanied by his partner Wendy on the Old Man of Coniston trail. But there’s much to be said for going it alone, too. Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University who has studied solitude, advocates the sociological and psychological value of moderated aloneness in order to get to know oneself that bit better, and our context in modern society.
“Walking is an ideal method for experiencing solitude,” says Fong. “In fact, one of the 18th century’s greatest philosophers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Reveries of a Solitary Walker before the end of his life. His book is divided into different ‘walks’ where each walk provided a set of realisations about the human condition. Walking is ideal for satiating our wanderlust, and if that could be secured through alone time, then such walks are not merely casual breaks, but a needed method and life practice for finding one’s centre of gravity, so to speak.
A solitary walk is not only therapeutic, it’s a statement about modern society
“A nice walk in the forest, on the beach, on a trail,” Fong continues, “reminds us just how astoundingly ridiculous modern society has become insofar as how it pitches what we should do with our free time. Thus, a solitary walk is not only therapeutic, it’s a statement – perhaps a proverbial middle-finger against the overload of scripts and superficialities that are surfeit in our society.”
Walking as an act of defiance – against the excesses of the modern world, even against serious illness. Think of that next time you take a stroll.