Why Walking Just 4,000 Steps a Day Is All Your Brain Needs, Science Says

Take a daily walk to stave off cognitive decline.

The biggest headline in fitness isn't a trendy exercise machine or app—it's new insights into the simple, raw power of moving your body in everyday ways. Though we've always known that exercise is good for your health and physique, researchers are now uncovering some very surprising health benefits associated with growing your movement routine in moderate ways. In particular, research shows that just a short walk can keep your brain healthy and stave off cognitive decline.

RELATED: Walking Pads Are the Latest Wellness Trend Everyone's Talking About.

One recent study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology shocked the health world when it announced that taking just under 4,000 steps per day can significantly improve heart health and reduce your risk of dying from any cause. For every 1,000 steps taken beyond that, subjects' risk of dying that year was reduced by an additional 15 percent.

Now, a new study published last month in the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease has found another reason to set 4,000 steps as your goal.

The team behind the study, a group of clinical researchers at Pacific Neuroscience Institute's Brain Health Center (PBHC), part of Providence Saint John's Health Center, set out to better understand the neuroprotective effects of moderate to vigorous physical activity. After analyzing data from 10,125 healthy participants who underwent whole-body MRI scans, they determined that various exercise types, including walking, running, or playing sports, were associated with better brain health.

The findings build on previous research, which has also linked regular walking with neuroprotective benefits. For instance, one study published in JAMA Neurology concluded that walking 9,800 steps each day could slash your risk of developing dementia by half.

RELATED: 7 Daily Ways to Keep Your Brain Young.

However, the new study suggests that taking far fewer steps can still have a significant impact on cognitive health. "We found that even moderate levels of physical activity, such as taking fewer than 4,000 steps a day, can have a positive effect on brain health," David Merrill, MD, PhD, a geriatric psychiatrist and the director of the PBHC, said via news release. "This is much less than the often-suggested 10,000 steps, making it a more achievable goal for many people."

In fact, after adjusting for age, sex, and body mass index, the team determined that increasing one's physical activity levels was linked with larger brain volumes in multiple regions. In particular, they saw volume increases in total gray matter, white matter, the hippocampus, and the frontal, parietal, and occipital lobes, leading to better memory, improvements in information processing, and more.

Merrill tells Best Life that a volume increase in the hippocampus could have a particularly significant effect on memory.

"There was a classic study of London cab drivers. As part of becoming a cab driver, they have to memorize thousands and thousands of detailed streets, the twists and turns, and the like. Advanced volumetric MRI of their brains show us that they have very large hippocampi compared to control subjects," he says. "Here we did not intervene, but we were able to look at an extraordinarily large and diverse number of subjects at once to draw observational conclusions about how exercise levels relate to hippocampal volumes."

Merrill says his team's findings reinforce a notion that's "becoming common sense—that exercising helps to prevent or at least slow the progression of memory decline with aging." He adds that people who are developing Alzheimer's disease or are at heightened risk of developing the condition may stand to gain the most.

In practical terms, this offers an easy prescription for anyone hoping to improve their cognitive health as they age: Simply move more. If you've got just 30 to 40 spare minutes each day, spending that time walking (or running, or biking) could transform your cognitive health and protect against neurodegenerative disease. The more you move, the more you stand to gain.

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Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. When it comes to the medication you're taking or any other health questions you have, always consult your healthcare provider directly.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more
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