Physical fitness is always part of the plan when it comes to healthy lifestyle goals, from losing weight to increasing energy to protecting against cardiovascular disease. So you shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that it’s also a big player when it comes to preventing dementia.

Exercise is one of the easier things we can do to keep our brains healthy, says Mark Mapstone, PhD, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, who is a spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. In a recent Columbia University study, the researchers found that older people who exercised lowered their risk of developing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease by 37 percent. (The subjects who exercised and followed a Mediterranean-style diet were 59 percent less likely to develop the symptoms of the disease.)

Take a Walk
“Every time your heart beats, 25 percent of the oxygen, nutrients and blood go right to the brain,” says Paul Nussbaum, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and the chairman of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Advisory Council for the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America. That’s why physical activity is so important, he adds. We have to walk every day — cumulatively, 30 minutes a day. The 10,000-step rule — meaning, take 10,000 steps every day — is good.

“Everyone should get a pedometer so they can keep track,” he says. And it all counts: Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking further away from the store entrance, walking down the hall to speak to someone instead sending an e-mail — plus, of course, building in time for an extended brisk walk as often as possible.

QUIZ: How Active Are You?

Try This

Dance up a storm! Learning any type of dance that involves specific moves is good for your brain, says neuropsychologist Mark Mapstone, PhD. Dances such as the tango, ballroom dance or square dancing require spatial awareness that takes intense concentration and develops new pathways in the brain. Actually, dancing gives you double the bang for the buck: It requires mental gymnastics, and it’s a physical workout.

More Is Better
There’s no magic number for how much exercise you need to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms. According to Nikos Scarmeas, the lead investigator of the Columbia University study, the benefit of exercise increases with the amount of physical activity you do. Simply put: More is better.

MORE: Grow a Brain Forest to Outsmart Alzheimer’s

Walking is a good way to start, but as you build up your fitness, try adding new activities you enjoy. Older adults might try water exercises, such as aqua aerobics, which are often easier on the joints and require less balance, or tai chi, a gentle, flowing form of martial arts that also helps improve balance.

If balance is an issue for you, as it can be for many older adults, keep these tips in mind when exercising:

  • Exercise within reach of a grab bar, rail or sturdy piece of furniture that can support you.
  • If you have trouble standing or getting up, try exercising in bed rather than on the floor or an exercise mat.
  • Always work out in a safe environment; avoid slippery floors, poor lighting, throw rugs and other potential dangers.