The New Fitness, Brain, and Memory Health Information You Need to Know About Your Daily Step CountI know you’ve seen the fitness trackers everybody is wearing. You may even use one.

One of the benefits of the increasingly popular devices — besides helping people realize how much they move (or don’t move), is that they allow research data to be collected on a much more specific level. The information gathered is substantially more thorough than the old standard of just asking people to self-report how much they moved each day. Unfortunately, this could be very inaccurate in some cases.

The conclusions coming from recent research using data from fitness trackers are proving that you can drastically influence your health, including mental health and age-related decline, just by moving your body. The more you move, the better the results. Not only that, but the research is showing that different activities and intensities actually affect specific types of memory skills.

New Health Data on Daily Walking

For instance, one recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at the data of 78,500 people with an average age of 61. Researchers monitored their physical activity for one week and tracked their health, including whether they developed cancer, heart disease, dementia, or died, for the next six to eight years. The data revealed some interesting information:

  • Every 2,000 extra steps each day decreased the risk of death from cancer, heart disease, and premature death by 10% (up to 10,000 steps).
  • 9,800 steps decreased the risk of developing dementia by 50%.
  • 3,800 steps decreased the risk of developing dementia by 25%.
  • Any amount of walking had health benefits which peaked at 10,000 steps.
  • Just two minutes of walking after eating can help blood sugar levels stabilize.

Speed Matters

In this study, scientists took the research a step further (pun intended). They also looked at the speed of walking and how that variable affected health outcomes. They identified brisk walkers (80–100 steps per minute) and here’s what they found compared to slow walkers:

  • Fast walkers had a 35% decreased risk of death.
  • 25% less risk of developing cancer or heart disease,
  • And a 30% lower risk for developing dementia.

Basically, people who walked faster did not have to take as many steps each day to have protection from death and disease. In fact, just 2,400–3,000 steps of brisk walking dropped risks for these people considerably. Researchers concluded that the intensity of walking matters over and above the number of steps.

Maybe you find it hard to carve out time to walk that many steps. The good news is that the walking did not have to occur contiguously. According to Matthew Ahmadi, one of the coauthors of the study:

“It doesn’t have to be a consecutive 30-minute session. I can just be in brief bursts here and there throughout your day.”

The New Fitness, Brain, and Memory Health Information You Need to Know About Your Daily Step Count

Real-life Takeaways

This study referred to here is just looking at correlation — not causation,  but it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people who move more were found to be better protected from many health conditions, including death. If you aren’t moving much, let this be your wake-up call.

If you regularly knock out a morning or evening stroll each day and are comfortable with that routine, you may benefit from challenging yourself and upping your speed slightly or just in intervals. You don’t have to run or jog, by any means (unless you want to). Just try to pick up the pace a little.

If you prefer to exercise at a gym,  the same advice would extend to working out on an elliptical, treadmill, rowing machine, stationary bike, and any other form of cardio. Try pushing yourself a little more from time to time. Start slow and build up. When you up the intensity, your body adapts, and your stamina and endurance increase to another level. Higher intensity can even boost weight loss (assuming you are getting proper nutrition).

I know people who find their workouts more enjoyable when they mix it up by incorporating brief bursts of faster walking or more energy. It doesn’t mean slower or comfortable speeds are bad, it’s just that different types of training puts different demands on your body and tend to yield different results.

Different Exercise Impacts Memory and Mental Health Differently

Another interesting recent study from Dartmouth College, published in Scientific Reports, looked at how different types of exercise impact mental health and memory. Previous research only looked at the connection over the course of days or weeks. This one monitored participants over the course of a year. In the study, 113 Fitbit users took memory tests, answered questions about their mental health, and recorded fitness data from over the year, including daily steps, average heart rate, and amount of time in set heart rate zones.

The researchers believed the more active someone was, the better mental health and memory. But the answer wasn’t so simple. Here’s what they found:

  • People who were more active had better memory performance overall compared to individuals who were sedentary.
  • People who exercised at lower intensities did better at specific memory tasks, such as tasks involving episodic memory, and people who exercised at higher intensities did better on others, such as tasks requiring spatial memory.
  • People who exercised at higher intensities had higher stress levels, while those who exercised at lower intensities had less stress, anxiety, and depression.

Here are some other interesting correlations they found:

  • People with self-reported depression or anxiety had better spatial memory and associative memory.
  • Those with self-reported bipolar performed better on episodic memory.
  • People with the highest stress levels did worse on associative memory.

This research opens the door to investigating more of these nuances in the different ways to exercise for specific benefits. According to the lead researcher of the study, Jeremy Manning:

“When it comes to physical activity, memory, and mental health, there’s a really complicated dynamic at play that cannot be summarized in single sentences like ‘walking improves your memory’ or ‘stress hurts your memory.”

It reminds me of the time I sat down with a high-level leadership consultant. We got to talking about exercise and stress, and she believed that some people, especially high-performers in leadership positions, who stay revved up most of the day, would actually benefit more mentally from lower-intensity exercise.

According to this research, she might be right.

The New Fitness, Brain, and Memory Health Information You Need to Know About Your Daily Step Count

Just Move — Listen to What Your Body Needs That Day

If you feel like you are cranked up and more prone to high stress, you may find that doing lower-intensity exercises like walking, yoga, tai chi, weight lifting, or any other kind of gentler movement may help you unwind mentally and allow your body to relax after a hectic day.

If you feel like you need a boost of energy, alertness, and focus, you might want to try upping your exercise intensity that day overall or in spurts. Running while rocking out with your headphones on, taking a lively spin class, or swimming may be just the thing you need.

Try out various activities and see what works for you and what you like best. It may differ on different days. Being able to switch into both ‘gears’ can be extremely valuable. Remember, any movement is better than no movement.

The bottom line is — just move your body, dance, walk, exercise, do yard work, vacuum — it all counts. Your brain and mental and physical health will benefit.  You will reduce your risk of many diseases with every move you make.

Guest Author

As a fitness coach for over twelve years and a life coach for nine, Kelan Ern is focused on helping people build the skillset and mindset they need to get into the best shape of their life – and create lasting transformation. Discover the power you have to restore your athleticism and take your fitness to the next level with his fitness tips and monthly transformation letter at: 

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