The mere act of putting one foot in front of the other for a few minutes has a significant beneficial impact on our mood, regardless of where we do it, why we do it, or what effect we expect the walk to have. That’s according to a pair of psychologists at Iowa State University who claim their study, published in Emotion, is the first to strip away all the many confounds typically associated with exercise research – things like social contact, fresh air, nature, the satisfaction of reaching fitness goals, and the expectation of the activity being beneficial – to show that the simple act of walking, in and of itself, is a powerful mood lifter.
The reason, argue Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan, is connected with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which means positive emotions are closely linked with our movement. In essence, the psychologists write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.”
The researchers tested hundreds of undergrad students across three studies with the true aims of the research disguised in each case – for example in the first instance it was framed as supposedly being an investigation into the effects of unfamiliar environments on mood. The researchers also checked to ensure no one guessed the true aims of the study.
Two of the studies showed that students who spent 12 minutes on a group walking tour of campus buildings, or on a dull walking tour on their own of the interior of a campus building, subsequently reported more positive mood, in terms of their ratings of feelings like joviality, vigour, attentiveness, and self-assurance, than others who spent the same time sitting and looking at photographs of the same campus tour, or watching a video of the same building interior tour.
The mood-enhancing effect of walking was found even for a so-called “walking dread” condition in the second study, in which students were warned ahead of walking the building tour that they would have to write a two-page essay afterwards and discuss their essay’s contents (this was just to provoke dread, they didn’t really have to do it). Whereas students in the sitting condition (with no provocation of dread) showed reductions in their positive mood by the end of the study, the students in “walking dread” condition actually maintained their positive mood. This was despite the fact they said they expected their mood to drop by the end of the tour.
The third and final study was the most tightly controlled. This time researcher-participant contact was kept to a minimum, with participants randomly allocated to different conditions and thereafter following instructions given by computer. Some students spent 10 minutes watching a Saatchi Gallery video alone while sitting on a treadmill, others spent the same time watching the video while standing on a treadmill, and the remainder watched the video while walking on the treadmill. The cover story was that the researchers were investigating the effects of proximity to gym equipment on people’s feelings. Once again, at the end, the students who’d spent time walking reported more positive mood scores than those who had been sitting or standing.
Miller and Krizan acknowledged some limitations of their research – for example, to maintain the cover story for the studies, they didn’t take any physiological measures from their participants. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the precise mechanism here for the observed effects. But the researchers believe they’ve made a breakthrough, concluding that their experiments “are the first to document a casual effect of routine ambulation on positive affect” (note that the effects here were strictly on positive feelings; negative mood feelings were unaffected).
Miller and Krizan added: “Taken together our findings suggest that incidental ambulation has a more robust and pervasive influence on affect than previously thought” and that their results might even explain why – as shown by prior research – we are generally quite hopeless at predicting our future mood. “People may underestimate the extent to which just getting off their couch and going for a walk will benefit their mood as they focus on momentarily perceived barriers rather than eventual mood benefits.”
I’m just heading out for a stroll, but before I do, I should add that the new findings also appear to complement a study we reported on six years ago, which showed that our instinct is for idleness but that we’re happier when we’re busy and active.
Animated GIF via GIPHY.com