Walking Can Boost Your Mood, Whether That's the Goal or Not

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It’s common wisdom that taking a walk can help lift your spirits. Offhand, you could attribute this boost to multiple factors: Studies show that sunshine and nature can improve your mood, plus you might enjoy escaping your normal routine, or knowing you’re doing something good for your body. But according to a new study published in the journal Emotion, Psychology Today writes, walking can enhance your sense of well-being even when you’re not expecting it to make a difference.

Jeff Miller, a visiting professor of psychology at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, and Zlatan Krizan, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, teamed up to conduct three experiments that measured how walking affects mood. The first one involved 232 college students: Participants showed up in small groups of one to four, and were shown a 10-minute, slow-paced video about Chinese architecture. They were told that the researchers were gauging their reactions to being immersed in both unfamiliar (Chinese landscape) and familiar (the college campus, which would be toured in the experiment's second portion) environments, but the film's real purpose was to make them feel calm.

After filling out a mood questionnaire (and some other questions meant to bolster the researchers’ cover story) the groups were instructed to either take silent, 12-minute walking tours that took them past 10 campus buildings, or silently watch virtual tours of the same sights. Afterwards, the researchers had the students answer more questions and take yet another mood survey.

The researchers found that the students who had taken walks yielded an increase in “positive affect”—a.k.a. their excitement, joy, enthusiasm, and positive engagement with the environment—while the students who had watched the virtual tour didn’t show any changes. “To our knowledge, this is the first experimental study to document that movement increases positive affect without participants’ awareness that their movement had any direct significance for their ongoing behavior or is the subject of study,” the researchers wrote.

Of course, they noted, the experiment did have several limitations: The walking subjects were outside in nature—which is known to improve mood—and, unlike those who watched the slideshow, they were seeing campus landmarks in person. Plus, while walking from Point A to Point B, the ambulatory participants were seeing parts of the college that the sedentary subjects weren’t exposed to. All these factors might have increased their positive affect.

For the researchers’ second experiment, they measured whether walking enhances mood even under otherwise boring—and potentially dread-inducing—circumstances. Study facilitators took a group of 93 students and gave them a long, silent tour inside a dull college building. Some were asked to do it by foot, and others sat and watched a video. To induce a feeling of dread in some walkers, a group of subjects was also told that they would need to write a two-page essay in 10 minutes about the tour upon its completion.

Again, researchers noted, walking had a noticeable effect on overall outlook: Like the first experiment, students filled out questions including a mood survey before the tour. Positive affect was lower among the students who had taken the video tour of the drab building, but it stayed roughly the same among those who walked the tour—even those who thought they had to write the essay.

In short, walking “will almost certainly result in increased feelings of pleasant energy. And that’s true whether you expect this to occur or not,” Miller told Psychology Today.

So go ahead, take a quick stroll—even if it’s only down the hall of your office. It will likely improve your mood, even if you’re feeling ultra-tired, stressed, or disengaged.

[h/t Psychology Today]