Can Walking a Specific Number of Steps Help Reduce Your Risk of Dementia?
October 25, 2022
Can Walking a Specific Number of Steps Help Reduce Your Risk of Dementia?
Mature couple walking outside
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Diana Kerwin, M.D, internal medicine and geriatrics

How many steps do you think you walk in a day? It may be more than you think. In fact, the average American walks 3,000 to 4,000 steps a day, which equates to around 2 miles. That’s pretty impressive but still far off from the supposed 10,000 steps our smartwatches, phones and activity trackers want us to take every day, especially since there’s no scientific research backing that arbitrary number.

However, what if we told you that by walking a specific number of steps, you could lower your risk of developing dementia by 50%? Would that put a little more pep in your step? Well, researchers behind a new study are doing exactly that, and coincidentally the magic number isn’t too far off from 10,000.

The Study

According to the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology, people between the ages of 40 and 79 who took 9,826 steps per day were 50% less likely to develop dementia within seven years. Even people who walked approximately 3,800 steps a day cut their risk of dementia by 25%.

But what does walking have to do with reducing your risk of cognitive decline? Studies have shown that a combination of aerobic physical activity and muscle strengthening can be beneficial to cognitive function. Both increase blood flow throughout the body and reduce your blood pressure while reducing the toxic proteins that lead to Alzheimer’s and reducing inflammation. Physical activity also tends to counter some of the natural reduction in brain connections that occurs with aging.

The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) recommends adults aim for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise — or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise — weekly. That works out to about 30 minutes of moderate cardio five days a week.

This study goes beyond duration and translates it into the exact number of steps you need to take to receive brain-healthy benefits. 

“Previously, it was easier to recommend a duration than a specific amount of steps because most people didn’t have access to an accelerometer that many of these studies use,” says Diana Kerwin, M.D, an internal medicine and geriatrics physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and at Kerwin Research Center & Memory Care. “But now that most people have a smart watch or phone in their pocket, it may be easier to recommend step count goals in order to help people get in the amount of daily exercise that is brain healthy.”

Additionally, having that phone in your pocket or a smartwatch that’s telling you in real-time where you’re at with those steps makes it easier to reach a daily goal instead of guessing.

Walking with Purpose

As we noted earlier, the intensity with which you are working out matters. Aiming for a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise can be a great goal, especially if you are older or have physical limitations that make vigorous activity impossible or dangerous.

Moderate activity feels somewhat hard, but not so hard that you’re out of breath or struggling to keep pace.

Some clues that your exercise intensity is at a moderate level include

  • Your breathing quickens, but you're not out of breath.
  • You develop a light sweat after about 10 minutes of activity.
  • You can carry on a conversation, but you can't sing.

If you wear a device that tracks your heart rate, you can gauge how hard you’re working by referencing your beats per minute. To achieve moderate intensity, an activity should get your heart rate to about 75% of your maximum target heart rate. Target heart rate is generally expressed as a percentage of your maximum safe heart rate. The maximum rate is based on your age, as subtracted from 220.

For example, a 50-year-old’s maximum heart rate is 220 minus 50, or 170 beats per minute. So you’d want to aim for around 127 beats per minute.

Researchers in the study found that those who walked with a “purpose,” or briskly, were able to cut their risk of dementia by 57% with just 6,315 steps a day compared to the original 9,826 steps.

The study also found that the largest reduction in dementia risk – 62% – was achieved by people who walked at a very brisk pace of 112 steps per minute for 30 minutes a day.

However, Kerwin notes that while walking speed can be a measure of increased cardio exertion, it’s not always feasible for everyone.

“Someone who is older or has any orthopedic issues, like arthritis or frailty, will most likely walk slower than someone with better general health, so there may be some bias here toward healthier individuals,” she explains. “But the overall principle is the same, the more (safe) walking, exercise, or movement you can do a day, the better for your brain health and cardiovascular health as well.”

It's worthwhile to mention, again, that people who walked approximately 3,800 steps a day at any speed cut their risk of dementia by 25%. That can be great news for anyone who wants to increase their activity level but jumping straight into moderate-intensity activities is potentially dangerous.

What to Be Mindful Of

While this study gives us a new, and maybe even easier, reference point when it comes to setting physical activity goals, it’s not a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

Remember, not everyone’s steps are the same length, nor are their fitness levels. What might be considered a “brisk pace” for someone in their 30s or 40s may not be sustainable for someone in their 70s, or even somewhere younger who has previously led a sedentary lifestyle.

Critics of the study say it may be more beneficial for people to focus on their pace and level of exertion versus the number of steps they take, especially if they’re just starting out.

That’s why Kerwin suggests always having safety at top-of-mind and getting some beneficial guidance from professionals.

“Safety always comes first. Talk to your doctor about starting an exercise program if you don’t already exercise regularly as a daily habit,” she explains. “If you have issues that limit your ability to walk quickly or for an extended time, talk with your doctor or a physical therapist to develop an exercise plan that will allow you to get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily without injury, such as on a stationary bike, water exercise, etc.”

Kerwin notes lowering your risk of dementia is multi-faceted but mostly centered around living well.

Consuming a brain-healthy diet like the MIND diet, moving more, socializing with friends and family, staying hydrated, and engaging your mind in something that interests you can go a long way in helping to stave off cognitive decline.

“Additionally, get a good general check-up with your doctor and address other risk factors such as high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes,” Kerwin adds. “Know what your numbers are and check they are well controlled. You can’t 100 percent prevent all of the risks and symptoms by healthy eating and exercise, but these all do have a big impact.”

Don’t have a step counter? You can count the number of steps you take in 10 seconds and then multiply it by six. Conversely, you can count the number of steps you take in six seconds and multiply it by 10. This will give provide your steps per minute, or your pace.

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