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Walking Can Lift Your Mood, Even When You Don't Expect It To

Even walking inside an ugly building has mood benefits, a new study shows.

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Feeling bored and sluggish at work? A new study shows that walking may be good for your mood, even if you’re strolling down a drab hallway and facing a dreaded chore afterward.

Taking your mind for a walk

Of course, going for a walk around your local park involves several things that can give your mood a boost. Getting up from your chair, spending time in nature, being exposed to sunlight, and taking in an interesting view can all help lift your spirits. If you walk with a buddy, the camaraderie adds to the benefits. And if you feel great about doing something for your health, that’s another plus.

Yet even when all those factors are controlled, walking still increases positive affect, according to a study published in the August issue of the journal Emotion. Positive affect reflects an energized, engaged state of mind and involves feelings such as interest, alertness, joy, excitement, and enthusiasm.

Walking, as opposed to sitting or standing, “will almost certainly result in increased feelings of pleasant energy. And that’s true whether you expect this to occur or not,” says Jeff Miller, Ph.D., the study’s lead researcher and a visiting professor of psychology at Saint Xavier University.

How does that make you feel?

Miller and co-author Zlatan Krizan, Ph.D., conducted a series of experiments to explore how walking influenced mood. In one experiment, 128 college students were told that they were part of a study looking at how being near exercise equipment affected their response to different environments. All instructions were presented via computer, so there wasn’t any human interaction.

First, the students watched a less-than-exciting—but not dreadfully dull—video about Chinese architecture for 10 minutes. Unbeknownst to them, the true purpose of watching this first video was to induce a calm state of mind. Afterward, the students rated their feelings at the moment.

Next, the students sat next to, stood on, or walked on a treadmill while watching another 10-minute video—this one a video tour of an art gallery. Then they rated their feelings again, unaware that what the researchers were really investigating was how sitting, standing, or walking affected their mood.

In short, none of the students went outside on a sunny day or interacted with others, and all saw exactly the same sights. Those who walked weren’t encouraged to think of it as exercise, with all the beneficial connotations associated with that. Yet walking still managed to increase their positive affect—something that standing in place failed to do.

Promoting engagement with life

Miller’s research suggests that even a brief walk may have immediate psychological benefits. “If you are feeling disengaged or sluggish, and you desire to energize yourself, take a brisk walk around the block or through the cubicles,” says Miller. “Your feelings of engagement will very likely increase, and all those things you might have wanted to be doing should seem less imposing.”

In another of Miller’s experiments, students toured the drab interior of a campus building, either on foot in real life or by video while seated. Some were told that they would have to write a two-page essay about it afterward—something they very likely viewed with trepidation. In this way, they were encouraged to believe that they would actually feel worse after walking.

As you might expect, positive feelings decreased after watching the boring tour on video. But positive feelings remained stable for those who walked the tour in person—even those who thought they would have to write the dreaded essay. Bottom line: Walking seemed to keep their spirits up, even under conditions that would ordinarily get them down.

Feeling energized for a workout

A short walk may have feel-good effects in other situations as well. When done before exercising, for example, a 5- to 10-minute warm-up such as gentle walking serves multiple purposes. It preps your muscles for harder work, improving efficiency and helping stave off injury. It raises your heart rate slowly, reducing the strain on your heart. And based on Miller’s study, it may also create a frame of mind that helps you make the most of your workout time.

Miller says his research showed that “walking seems to influence the attentiveness and joviality components of positive affect most directly.” So a walking warm-up may promote attentiveness and good humor during subsequent exercise, making it all the more productive and fun.

Tracking steps to get healthier—and happier

Wearable fitness trackers that record your daily steps can help leverage the benefits of walking, both physical and psychological. Miller says, “Thinking, ‘I still have to do 2,000 more steps today’ encourages you to do it, and that is beneficial not only for your health but also for your ability to engage with the environment.”

According to Miller, it doesn’t really matter why you use a fitness tracker. “You may be tracking your steps because reporting them to your insurance company gives you a rate discount,” he says. “Or you may be doing it because you expect to be healthier and feel better.” Either way, Miller says, “you’ll still get the health and psychological benefits.” Putting one foot in front of the other is always a step in the right direction.

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