The 10,000 steps/day physical activity mantra has been called into question in recent years. A landmark study, however, links 10,000 steps/day to a sharply lower dementia risk. And it suggests that walking speed may be at least as important as daily step count. This gives well-being leaders yet another good reason to promote walking programs.
This news will resonate with potential wellness program participants, including many who previously found little motivation to engage.
The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as loss of memory, language, problem-solving, and other thinking abilities severe enough to interfere with daily life — with Alzheimer’s as the most common cause. Fear of dementia is one of the most prevalent disease worries.
The new study, which followed for 7 years 78,430 UK adults (ages 40-79), is unique because it focuses on dementia, not mortality or weight loss like most step-count research.
The study’s unexpected findings:
- Approximately 9800 steps/day was optimal for reduced dementia risk. Risk didn’t decline further as step counts rose. In fact, it started to reverse — though the catchy 10,000 steps/day goal is close enough to optimum for wellness program purposes.
- Outcomes were dramatic. At 9800 steps/day, dementia risk was 50% lower than for sedentary subjects. A 25% risk reduction was observed at 3800 steps/day.
- Dementia risk decreased as walking speed increased, up to 112 steps/minute — a fast pace, not a leisurely stroll — after which improvement tails off. This level of intensity, measured as the fastest (not necessarily consecutive) 30 minutes of daily steps, was so compelling an accompanying editorial carried the headline, “Is 112 the new 10,000?” Earlier studies simply recommend a brisk pace or downplay speed altogether.
How Fast Is 112 Steps/Minute?
Program participants who’ve heard news reports about reducing dementia risk will wonder how to monitor their step rate, especially if they don’t own a wearable device that tracks cadence. For context, researchers classify 60-79 steps/minute as slow (think of it as a casual pace) and 100 steps/minute as brisk, noting most people naturally transition to a jog around 140 steps/minute.
Recognizing, however, that perceived intensity varies depending on physical condition, age, weight, and terrain, they suggest:
- Download a metronome app and set it for the desired step rate
- Walk to the beat of music you find on the internet that’s tagged by beats per minute (for example, search for “music at 112 bpm”)
- Count steps for 15 seconds and multiply by 4.
The dementia study comes with the usual caveats, especially cautioning that correlation doesn’t imply causation. That is, the fact people who take 9800 steps/day are less likely to develop dementia doesn’t make us certain that walking leads to this outcome. More research is needed to pinpoint cause and effect.
While conflicting findings and a cornucopia of numbers muddle exactly how many steps we need and how fast we should take them, researchers generally are in lockstep about this: Physical activity is good; most people can benefit by more.
For wellness program leaders and participants, the potential to reduce dementia risk lengthens the list of reasons to take this message to heart.
(To learn more about lifestyle and brain health, see the HES blog post, Brain Health: From Waning to Gaining.)
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.