Walking — the process of putting one foot in front of the other — is a powerful mood enhancer, regardless of where or why we’re doing it, according to a study published recently in the journal Emotion.
It’s long been known that exercise, including moderately paced walking, is associated with an improved mood. Walking outdoors in a natural environment has been found to be particularly beneficial.
This new study suggests, however, that walking has that effect even when we don’t have any expectations that the activity will do anything positive for us — or when we’re bored or distracted with worry.
In fact, it may even lift our spirits when we’re walking around inside a nondescript building.
“Movement embedded in daily routines seems to be a strong facilitator of [a positive mood] and will impact feelings of vigor and joviality unbeknownst to the individual, even counteracting conscious expectations,” write the study’s two authors, psychologists Jeffrey Miller of Saint Xavier University and Zlatan Krizan of Iowa State University.
There may be an evolutionary reason for why walking — movement — brightens our mood, they add. Such a positive response may have encouraged our earliest ancestors to go out and seek food and do other needed tasks. Charles Darwin, the “father” of evolution, noted this connection more than a century ago.
“Now with animals of all kinds, the acquirement of almost all their pleasure, with the exception of those of warmth and rest, are associated with active movements,” he wrote in 1872.
The first two experiments
For their study, Miller and Krizan conducted three separate experiments. All involved undergraduate students.
For the first experiment, 232 students were randomly assigned to take a silent (non-social) 12-minute tour of 10 buildings on a university campus, either on foot or while sitting and watching a slide show. In the second experiment, 93 students were randomly assigned to a 12-minute tour of the uninteresting interior of a campus building — again, either on foot or while sitting, although this time the seated version of the tour was via a first-person-perspective video. (By moving the walking indoors, the researchers eliminated the possibility that any improvement in the participants’ mood was due to being in a natural environment.)
Some of the students in the second experiment were also told that they would be expected to write — and then discuss with others — a two-page essay about what they had observed during the tour. The purpose for telling them this: to provoke a feeling of dread and, thus, take away any pleasure from the walk. (The students didn’t really have to write the essay.)
To ensure that the students did not guess the study’s purpose — an outcome that would bias the results — the researchers told them that the experiments were about the effects of unfamiliar environments on mood.
In both these experiments, students who went on the walking tour reported a more positive mood after the experience — higher levels of joy, vigor, attentiveness and self-assurance, for example. This finding was true even for participants in the “walking dread” arm of the study.
The students who took the tour while sitting in front of a computer, however, reported a drop in positive mood at the end of the experiment.
“To our knowledge, this is the first experimental study to document that movement increases [positive mood] without participants’ awareness that their movement had any direct significance for their ongoing behavior or is the subject of study,” write Miller and Krizan.
The third experiment
In the third experiment, 128 students were assigned to spend 10 minutes watching a video on Chinese architecture. They were randomly assigned to watch the video in one of three different conditions: while sitting, while walking on a treadmill, or while standing on a treadmill.
To disguise the true purpose of the study, the researchers told the students that they were investigating the effects of being near exercise equipment on how people experienced familiar and unfamiliar environments.
As before, the students who walked reported an overall positive lift in their mood immediately after the experiment, while those who sat or stood reported a drop in positive mood.
These experiments, as Miller and Krizan acknowledge, have several limitations. Most notably, the researchers did not monitor the students’ physiological states during the experiments — their wakefulness or physical condition, for example. Such factors also have an impact on emotions.
Still, the findings are interesting, particularly since the walking involved in the study was pretty routine — similar to the type of walks that students (and the rest of us) do many times a day.
Also, the mood-enhancing walks lasted no longer than 12 minutes and did not involve socializing or even attractive surroundings.
“Taken together, our findings suggest that incidental ambulation has a more robust and pervasive influence on affect that previously thought,” conclude Miller and Krizan.
“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,” they add.