Regular Walks May Help People with Early Alzheimer’s, Study Shows

senior couple walking

A brisk, 30-minute walk every day could protect your memory and your brain. This news comes from a six-month study conducted by researchers from the University of Kansas (KU). The study's results were published in February. A walking program that builds heart and lung health could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers believe.

The researchers recruited 68 people with probable early Alzheimer’s disease who were able to safely participate in a treadmill walking program. They then tracked half of the group in a three-month supervised brisk walking program that added up to 150 minutes a week of physical activity. The other half participated in a light stretching program without added walking. The researchers tested participants’ functional ability and memory in the middle of and at the end of the program.

“In people with mild Alzheimer’s disease, exercise that boosts heart and lung function appears to be associated with benefits in memory and slowing the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease,” says neurologist Jeffrey Burns, MD, co-director of the KU Alzheimer’s Disease Center. The group that walked regularly was also better able to manage daily physical activities than those who went through the stretching program.

The study’s results join a growing body of research demonstrating that exercise keeps your brain healthy along with your heart, lungs and body. An earlier study conducted at the University of California, Irvine and published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics in January 2014 showed that people with Alzheimer’s disease who walked for at least two hours a week showed less cognitive decline over the course of a year than their sedentary peers with cognitive impairment.

“Exercise in people with Alzheimer’s disease is something that may slow the disease process,” says Dr. Burns. “We do have drugs for Alzheimer’s disease but they don’t do that, and we are working hard to develop drugs that do it, but exercise might do it.”

Ultimately, he says, more research is needed to dig deep into why exercise is beneficial to the brain. But, he says, brisk walking is a very low-cost way that people can protect their brains on a daily basis. The kind of walking that Burns and his colleagues studied was aerobic, meaning that the walkers were slightly breathless because of the moderately fast pace they were walking.

Burns emphasizes that if you have any concerns about whether you’re fit enough to begin a walking program, you should talk to your physician about how to start. If you haven’t been active in a while, you might need to gradually increase your activity over several weeks until you reach about 30 minutes per day. People who are unable to walk can still benefit from other forms of physical activity, but should talk to their doctor about getting started.

5 Reasons to Walk

National recommendations for physical activity are that all adults should get at least 150 minutes of physical activity weekly. It goes without saying that you don’t have to wait until you or a loved one has some cognitive decline to get started. But if you’re interested in walking, here are five reasons beyond the national recommendations to do it:

  1. Walking costs very little. It’s a good idea to invest in a pair of closed shoes with good support for your feet and ankles, but other than that, walking is free. You don’t need a gym membership, pricy equipment, or tight fitting fashionable clothing. Dress comfortably, layer for the weather and don’t forget some sunscreen or a hat if it’s sunny out.
  2. Walking is popular. “If you ask older adults what is their preferred and the most common form of exercise, it’s going to be walking because they can do it on their own or with a friend,” says Marcia Ory, PhD, the director of the Center for Population Health and Aging at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Ory and her colleagues would like walking to become even more popular, and have launched a statewide program called Texas Cares to provide dementia sufferers and their caregivers with information to help them manage living Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Encouraging walking for brain health can be part of that effort, she says.
  3. Walking can be done anywhere. Although the KU study was done using treadmills, getting outside for a walk in your neighborhood or a park could be healthy as well. “Research shows the incredible benefits of being outdoors. It improves mood and overall functioning,” points out Ory. “But if you have a neighborhood that isn’t safe, you don’t want to walk at night, or it’s too hot or too cold, you can do mall walking.” Ory adds that even “big box” retail stores can become an opportunity for walking, if that’s your preference. Of course, if you're walking on your own, it's a good idea to let someone know where you plan to go and carry a cellphone with you.
  4. Walking is social. Even if you start your walk alone, chances are, you’ll run into neighbors or other walkers and stop for a moment to catch up or talk about the weather, particularly if you walk the same route at more or less the same time of day. Other people enjoy walking with a friend, family member or as part of a walking club. Not only is social interaction yet another brain healthy strategy – social support means you are likelier to stick to your exercise plan.
  5. Walking challenges your brain. Ory points out that if you’re walking outside or in your neighborhood, your brain is stimulated and challenged by the things you see, hear, and notice throughout your walk. But the same can be said for indoor walking. Ory vividly recalls her mother, in her 80s, walking through stores and commenting on the sales and the changing price of groceries. Such seemingly everyday conversation is in fact a brain-healthy mental challenge, she says, as you or your loved one do the calculations involved to figure out exactly how much the price of eggs has changed over the years. “It keeps you sharp,” she says.

The good news is that researchers such as those at the KU and the University of California continue to dig into the ways in which exercise can help people who are at risk for Alzheimer’s or who already have signs of cognitive impairment.

“There is a much larger clinical trial getting underway now called the EXERT trial, to look at exercise and dementia,” says Keith Fargo, PhD, director of scientific programs & outreach at the Alzheimer's Association. “In general, things that are good for your heart are good for your brain. And, if you have an unhealthy cardiovascular system, your brain will suffer for it.”

Fargo points out that regular exercise is just one of the Alzheimer’s Association’s recommendations for brain health. In addition to exercising, he emphasizes protecting your brain with other heart-healthy choices such as a healthy diet, getting enough quality sleep, challenging your brain, quitting smoking cigarettes, and staying social. A complete list of brain health strategies can be found at alz.org.

So lace up your walking shoes, call a friend or family member, and get walking!