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Encouraging physical activity as a way to promote brain health (Hertfordshire Health Walks)

Case Study

posted by WM Admin on 23 March 2016

Hertfordshire Health Walks offer free, led, local, health-focused walks across Hertfordshire. The aim is to help promote walking and encourage more people, of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, to get outdoors, get more active and reap the health benefits.

Each year, over 47,000 people take part in Hertfordshire Health Walks. Physical activity not only helps to reduce the risk of developing dementia, but also boosts emotional wellbeing and offers companionship.

The programme is co-ordinated by Hertfordshire County Council’s Countryside Management Service in partnership with:

  • Hertfordshire’s Public Health team
  • NHS bodies
  • Macmillan Cancer Support
  • The Ramblers

The initiative is part of the national Walking for Health network.

What was involved

There are 60 walks on offer each week. These are led by more than 200 trained volunteers who work in pairs to provide safe, enjoyable group walks to promote a healthy lifestyle.

The shortest walks are 20 minutes at a gentle pace with lots of stopping places and many are wheelchair accessible. The longest walks last no more than 90 minutes.

Encouraging physical activity in older people helps to:

  • reduce the risk of falls
  • promote independence, by improving the ability to perform daily activities
  • reduce the risk of heart disease
  • support the treatment of long term conditions, such as diabetes
  • promote mental wellbeing
  • maintain brain function
  • reduce social isolation (where performed in groups)

Walk Leaders had previously been given little information on supporting people living with dementia.

In order to improve this and to promote the walks to people living with dementia, 50 volunteer Walk Leaders trained as Dementia Friends. They were encouraged to think about ways to improve walk access for those living with dementia. This has led to further work to meet the needs of those in the dementia community.

The Projects Officer managing Hertfordshire Health Walks became a Dementia Champion to help disseminate information. The Officer visited Alzheimer’s Society dementia cafes and NHS memory support groups to promote Hertfordshire Health Walks for service users and carers.

Cllr Teresa Heritage, Hertfordshire County Council’s portfolio holder for Public Health, Libraries and Localism said:

Dementia is a very serious disease affecting many individuals in Hertfordshire and overall numbers of diagnoses are increasing significantly.

I feel it’s important we provide healthy and safe opportunities for people living with dementia to take part in physical activities such as Hertfordshire Health Walks which help maintain physical health, emotional wellbeing and companionship.

I was pleased to learn of volunteers’ involvement with Dementia Friends and links to other support services and hope it continues.

What works well

Walk Leaders have been given additional confidence to provide walks which are safe and enjoyable for people living with dementia and their friends, family and carers.

Hertfordshire Health Walks have been better promoted to Hertfordshire residents with memory impairment. This was achieved by:

  • identifying that Walk Leaders needed more information on dementia
  • providing a simple and appropriate way to deliver Dementia Friends information sessions to a significant number of Walk Leaders
  • making efforts to become better known to NHS and dementia charity organisations in Hertfordshire to encourage and facilitate referral
  • promoting the social or companionship benefits of the walks

What could be better

There is a need to develop a method to record any increase in the number of people living with dementia who access Health Walks and the improvements experienced.

Other improvements that are planned include:

  • providing ongoing support and information to the volunteer Health Walk Leaders to embed awareness about dementia alongside other key public health messages
  • helping health professionals to identify to patients the physical, social and mental health benefits of moderate physical activity in groups taken in the natural outdoor environment

Next steps

Hertfordshire Health Walks continues to grow and develop, with a range of partners, becoming more accessible and enjoyable for people living with dementia in the county.

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