Walking lifts your mood, even when you don’t expect it to

Posted on November 25, 2016

Photo: flickr

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.

Jeffrey Miller and Zlatan Krizan argued that there is a connection with how we evolved to move to find food and other rewards, which implies 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.”

Hundreds of undergrad students across three studies were tested 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. Researchers made sure participants were blinded from the true aims of the study.

Two of the studies showed that students who spent 12 minutes on a group walking tour of campus building, 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, as compared to the other group 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.

Students who were in the second study of “walking dread” condition was 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 to aggravate dread, they did not have to do the essay). Despite the essay warning, mood-enhancing effect of walking was still found. On the contrary, students in the sitting condition, without any provocation of dread, showed reductions in their positive mood by the end of the study, the students in “walking dread” condition 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 were the most tightly controlled as researcher-participant contact was kept to a minimum. Participants were randomly allocated to three different conditions and thereafter given instructions by computer. The three different conditions were, 10 minutes watching of a Saatchi Gallery video alone while sitting on a treadmill, standing on a treadmill or walking on the treadmill respectively. The cover story was that the researchers were investigating the effects of proximity to gym equipment on people’s feelings. Results proved that students who’d spent time walking reported more positive mood scores than those who had been sitting or standing.

There are also limitations acknowledged in this research study such as to maintain the cover story for the studies, any physiological measures of the participants were not taken. This makes it difficult to pinpoint the precise mechanism here for the observed effects. However, a breakthrough was believed had happened, concluding that their experiments “are the first to document a casual effect of routine ambulation on positive affect”.

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Category(s):Sports Psychology

Source material from British Psychological Society