Keep Your Brain Sharp With Just a Few More Steps Per Day

Twenty minutes—or less—a day of breaking a sweat is all you need to reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

by Lara DeSanto Health Writer

Let’s face it—most of us could stand to get a little bit more physical activity on the regular. And now there’s another reason to get motivated—and it has to do with your brain health and risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Luckily, it may only take a little extra effort to make a significant impact on your cognitive health through exercise: Even short periods of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity may have cognitive benefits for middle-aged adults, according to new research from the Alzheimer’s Association. In fact, the study, published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions, found that:

  • Walking more total steps per day (no matter how much) may boost executive function—things like goal-setting and focusing skills—in older adults.

  • Just 10-21 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity was linked to improved thinking and planning skills for middle-aged adults, and 10 minutes a day was linked to better memory.

And for the older adults in the study, it wasn’t even the intensity of the activity that mattered, but rather the total amount of activity that seemed to help maintain cognition.

To come to these conclusions, researchers from Boston University Medical Campus looked at data from 2,700 adults, middle-age and older. They assessed the adults’ thinking and planning skills, memory, and word recall—along with their physical activity.

The Link Between Exercise and Alzheimer’s Risk

Past research has also looked at the impact of getting active and your risk of cognitive decline, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. And while it’s not a definite prevention tactic, there’s enough research for the Alzheimer’s Association to list it as a key way to potentially reduce your risk.

Scientists think that getting your blood and oxygen flowing through your brain via exercise may keep your brain cells healthy—therefore possibly lowering your chances of things like memory loss that come with dementia.

What Does ‘Moderate-to-Vigorous’ Activity Mean, Exactly?

The study showed moderate-to-vigorous activity was what made the difference—basically, doing the task should take some effort. A good way to judge whether you’ve reached a moderate level of activity is if you can still hold a conversation while you’re moving, but you can’t sing.

There’s even more good news: You don’t have to plan a formal workout for your physical activity to count. But that also means no excuses: Even walking briskly around the neighborhood during your lunchbreak can get the job done.

While the study found that just 10-21 minutes could make the difference for your cognitive health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually recommend more if you want those benefits to impact your whole body—from keeping your heart healthy to lowering your risk of serious diseases like cancer.

For head-to-toe health, the CDC says healthy adults should get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity every week. And remember: You can split that up into manageable chunks throughout the week, rather than doing all 150 minutes at once.

Some examples of moderate-level activities to try, per the World Health Organization, include:

  • Brisk walking

  • Dancing

  • Mowing the lawn

  • Housework

  • Gardening

Want to up the intensity? Here are examples of vigorous activities:

  • Walking briskly up hill

  • Fast cycling

  • Running

  • Swimming laps

  • Aerobics

  • Competitive sports, like volleyball or basketball

No matter what your preferred activity (pick something you really enjoy!), those steps truly count when it comes to your cognitive health. So, lace up your walking shoes and get those steps in!

  • Exercise and Alzheimer’s Risk Study: Spartano, N. (2019). Accelerometer-determined physical activity and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults from two generations. Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions, 5. Retrieved from
Lara DeSanto
Meet Our Writer
Lara DeSanto

Lara is a former digital editor for HealthCentral, covering Sexual Health, Digestive Health, Head and Neck Cancer, and Gynecologic Cancers. She continues to contribute to HealthCentral while she works towards her masters in marriage and family therapy and art therapy. In a past life, she worked as the patient education editor at the American College of OB-GYNs and as a news writer/editor at WTOP.com.