Walking Just 4,000 Steps a Day May Lower Dementia Risk

An older man walking through the woods
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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that walking 3,800 to 9,800 steps a day may reduce a person’s risk for dementia. 
  • Health experts say that taking more steps a day is better than taking no steps at all, and it may help cut down your risk for mental decline as well as have other health benefits.
  • Other ways to lower your risk of dementia are avoiding smoking and drug use, getting enough sleep, and limiting alcohol intake.

Taking as many steps as you can in a day by walking or doing other physical activities offers many health benefits, like preventing heart disease, lowering blood pressure, and relieving stress.

According to a new study published in JAMA Neurology, your daily step count may offer some protection against dementia. The researchers found that walking between 3,800 steps and 9,800 steps daily may help lower a person’s risk for cognitive decline.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from over 78,000 people between the ages of 40 and 79 who wore a device that measures vibrations and motion (wrist accelerometers) for nearly seven years.

The participants were from the UK Biobank—a large-scale biomedical database of health information from nearly half a million residents of the United Kingdom.

The researchers put the participants in two categories based on the total number of steps they took per day:

  • Fewer than 40 steps per minute
  • More than 40 steps per minute (also called “purposeful” walking)

Next, the researchers compared each person’s daily step count to diagnoses of dementia of any type seven years later.

Borja del Pozo Cruz, PhD, lead author of the study and an adjunct associate professor at the University of Southern Denmark, and senior researcher in health sciences for the University of Cadiz, told Verywell that the researchers controlled for certain factors like age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, and socioeconomic status.

They also adjusted for health and lifestyle factors like cardiovascular disease, poor diet, smoking, alcohol use, medications, and sleep problems.

“We found that doing a little lower than 10,000 steps per day provided the sort of maximum reduction in risk of dementia,” said del Pozo Cruz. “However, if you’re not sitting in this 3,800 or 10,000 step range, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count—because every step counts.”

How Much Walking Lowers Dementia Risk?

The researchers found that the participants who took 9,826 steps per day were 50% less likely to develop dementia within seven years, and taking 3,800 steps per day was associated with a 25% lower risk.

Borja del Pozo Cruz, PhD

If you’re not sitting in this 3,800 or 10,000 step range, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t count—because every step counts.

— Borja del Pozo Cruz, PhD

People who walked around 6,300 steps per day with more intensity or “purpose” (a pace of 40 or more steps a minute) had the largest decrease in dementia risk—up to 57%.

The authors found that after people hit 10,000 steps per day, the benefits between daily steps and dementia risk were limited. However, that’s not to say that hitting a higher step count isn’t a worthy health goal.

“Beyond 10,000 steps, we didn’t see a clear association,” said del Pozo Cruz, “but I would say the benefits are less clear—but perhaps not less meaningful.”

Setting a Step Goal for Dementia? Experts Say Not Yet

Despite the findings of the research, other health experts who were not involved in the study point out that there are limitations to the findings.

First, the study was observational. That means it did not prove a direct causal relationship between the number of steps taken per day and a lower risk of dementia.

Joe Verghese, MD, MS, FRCPI, a professor of neurology, medicine, and geriatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Verywell that other study limitations to consider were a “low response rate, younger population compared to other studies, and those who walk more might also engage in health behaviors such as more be more cognitively engaged and have better diets.”

With those limitations in mind, Verghese said it’s “premature to set a step limit for dementia.”

However, Verghese added that walking in general, as well as increasing the number of steps you take per day, is still worth doing because it will support your overall health.

“That is not to say walking isn’t beneficial as there are clear benefits to other systems such as cardiac, pulmonary, and bone,” said Verghese. “Walking is also associated with reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death.”

OK, But How Many Steps Is Good Enough?

Doug Eliason, DO, Vice President, Clinical Affairs at P3 Health Partners Oregon, told Verywell that the researchers “did not find that there was no benefit in doing lower level exercise.”

Indeed, del Pozo Cruz said that any steps you can take per day are better than taking no steps at all—and that goes for other forms of physical activity, too.

For example, a study published in Neurology in August found that both higher- and lower-level exercises—like running, walking, cycling, climbing stairs, gardening, and even housework-related activity—were associated with a lower risk of dementia.

Tips for Increasing Your Daily Step Count

  • Join a community exercise or walking group
  • Stroll through a new part of your town, a local park or trail, or a different neighborhood
  • Use a treadmill or indoor track if walking outside isn’t ideal or possible
  • Skip the elevator and take the stairs
  • Park your car further away from your destination
  • Take breaks during the day to do laps around your office, house, or yard
  • Put on some music and get moving at home, or listen to an audiobook or podcast while puttering around doing chores

While del Pozo Cruz’s study pointed to the 3,800 to 9,800 steps per day as being a possible “sweet spot” for decreasing the risk of cognitive decline, it’s far from an all-or-nothing rule.

Eliason said that if people are capable of doing that many steps, “that’s fantastic and they should,” but the research “by no means states doing less doesn’t benefit the individual.”

How Could Daily Steps Lower Dementia Risk?

According to del Pozo Cruz, more research is needed to better understand why walking and increasing the number of steps you take per day could be linked to lower dementia risk.

Researchers do have some ideas, though. For example, del Pozo Cruz suggested that physical activity, in general, is associated with better cardiovascular and vascular outcomes.

“We don’t fully know why yet, but physical activity can improve and is associated with a better cardiovascular and vascular profile,” said del Pozo Cruz.

Eliason added that taking more steps per day and getting other forms of exercise not only conditions the cardiovascular system but also allows the heart to beat stronger. Physical activity also helps the heart and lungs get more efficient at bringing in oxygen.

Doug Eliason, DO

Anything that improves blood flow to the brain appears to have positive benefits in how we are cognitively, and how alert we are.

— Doug Eliason, DO

According to Eliason, when more blood flow and oxygen can be delivered to other parts of the body, like the brain, that could possibly lower one’s risk for developing dementia. 

“Our brain is maybe our most sensitive organ in the body to blood flow,” said Eliason. “The brain takes a large quantity of our blood flow because we need a constant and consistent level of oxygen and sugar delivered to the brain tissue so that the brain can optimally function.”

Therefore, Eliason said that “anything that improves blood flow to the brain appears to have positive benefits in how we are cognitively, and how alert we are.” 

Non-Stepping Steps for a Healthy Brain

Besides walking and other forms of physical activity, del Pozo Cruz, Eliason, and Verghese shared other steps people can take to reduce their risk of dementia—particularly if their ability to take the physical steps is limited.

Here are a few of their suggestions:

  • Get enough sleep (for most adults, that’s 7 to 9 hours each night)
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Avoid smoking and drug use
  • Manage cholesterol and blood pressure levels 
  • Engage in cognitively stimulating activities (e.g, board games, card games, puzzles, musical instruments, learning a new language)

“Anything that improves cardiovascular health, in theory, should also improve brain health,” Eliason said.

Some examples? “Avoid smoking because damage to blood vessels occurs when smoking, manage cholesterol because that can clog and block vessels, and manage blood pressure and diabetes because both can be quite harmful to blood vessels if they’re not taken care of,” said Eliason.

What This Means For You

A recent study found that a specific range of daily steps may cut down your risk of dementia, but health experts emphasize that getting any sort of movement—be it walking or engaging in other forms of exercise—is great for your overall health.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Arthritis Foundation. 12 Benefits of Walking.

  2. del Pozo Cruz B, Ahmadi M, Naismith SL, Stamatakis E. Association of daily step count and intensity with incident dementia in 78 430 adults living in the UKJAMA Neurol. Published online September 6, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.2672

  3. Zhu J, Ge F, Zheng Y, et al. Physical and mental activity, disease susceptibility, and risk of dementia: a prospective cohort study based on UK Biobank. Neurology. 2022;99(8):e799-e813. doi:10.1212/WNL.0000000000200701

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much sleep do I need?

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.