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Dementia and the benefits of nature: Walking

Walking is great exercise for people with dementia.

The naturalist and conservationist John Muir once said, “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.” Muir proved to be prescient. Recent studies show that being in nature and exercising outdoors have positive benefits for everyone—including people with dementia. Exercising outdoors, in nature, is known as “green exercise.”

Benefits of green exercise for people with dementia

A research literature review published by Dementia Adventure points out that adults living with cognitive changes who participate in green exercise experience better sleep patterns; longer sleep duration; and improved continence, mobility and eating patterns.

One of the studies found that having a connection to nature can enhance verbal expression in people living with dementia. Another showed that nature-based activities for people living with dementia bring joy and sensory stimulation.

In fact, research during the last decade in particular has also demonstrated the following benefits for people with dementia:  

  • Improved dietary intake
  • Multi-sensory engagement
  • Increased verbal expression
  • Improved memory
  • Improved mood
  • Improved hormone balance
  • Improved resting heart rate and diastolic blood pressure
  • Increased quality of life

Walking: Simple and effective

The best exercise for someone with dementia is walking because it can be done according to one’s own abilities and at one’s own pace. Walking is also free and doesn’t require special equipment.

Considerations

There are a few things to consider before heading out.

  • If there is a risk of becoming disoriented during the walk, be sure a trusted friend or loved one accompanies the individual with memory loss.
  • It is important to consider the age, abilities and type of dementia individuals have before letting them go on a walk. Make sure the walk is appropriate for them.
  • Be aware of the weather conditions. If it has rained recently, or if there is rain in the forecast, the ground may be wet and increase the chance of falling.
  • Check the intensity of the trail to make sure that it’s suitable. Some are paved and may be better for wheelchairs.
  • Make sure the person takes water.
  • Arrange consistent walks—ideally a walk that does not entail crossing major roads.
  • Go with the person until you are confident that he or she has learned the route.
  • Make sure that the person with dementia has a contact phone number on him or her at all times when outside the house.
  • Think about purchasing a MedicAlert® + Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return® bracelet. 

Suggestions for walking paths

Make sure to check out the online descriptions of the trails to ensure that they are appropriate for the person who will be walking.

Ann Arbor

Bird Hills Nature Area

County Farm County Park

Gallup Park

Nicholas Arboretum

Rolling Hills County Park

Other Walking Sources

American Heart Association – Find a Walking Path—Listings of American Heart Association Walking Paths by state

MapMyWalk—Listings of walking paths including mileage and elevation

TrailLink—Sources for walking, biking and birding by state; includes the type of surface (asphalt, crushed stone, wood chips, etc.)

Take the next steps

  • Read the Alzheimer’s Society’s article, “Walking about,” concerning people with dementia who feel compelled to walk and how you can help them

Erin_MobleyErin Mobley is a summer intern at the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center Outreach Recruitment and Education department. Mobley received her bachelor’s degree in the social sciences from Michigan State University and is pursuing a dual master’s degree from the University of Michigan in public health and in social work, with a focus on aging. This summer she is exploring the areas of program development, therapy and research to find the career that will best suit her skills and interests.

 

U of M Health logoThe Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center (MADC) was established at the University of Michigan Health System through affiliation with the Department of Neurology and aims to conduct and promote research on Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders; ensure state-of-the-art care for individuals experiencing cognitive impairment or dementia; and enhance the public’s and health professionals’ understanding of dementia through education and outreach efforts. The infrastructure of the Center stems from a 20-year history as an NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.