If you have ever wanted a pick-me-up and an excuse to move a little, you finally have it. A new study from Iowa State University has found that simply walking for a short period of time can improve mood substantially. This effect remained even when attempts to make the walk less pleasant were instituted. Jeffrey Conrath Miller and Zlatan Krizan, professors in psychology, published their study in Emotion and suggest that walking by itself, rather than setting, pace, or other external factors, is the key element in the resulting mood enhancement. 

The study involved 232 undergraduate students who were first asked to either sit or walk around during a viewing of a familiar and unfamiliar environment. During the second phase of the study the participants were asked to tour a “drab” setting, again while either sitting or walking. In the final section, they simply walked on a treadmill in a small controlled room. Mood was measured by means of the PANAS (Positive And Negative Affect Schedule) test at various points before and after the activities were completed.

The results were clear: merely walking dramatically improved the moods of the students involved, especially when compared to the students who did a similar activity while seated. The effect remained even when the environment changed to the duller possibilities.

In the second part of the study, the researchers decided to add another element to see how strong the effect was: they tested whether the mood boost measured before could withstand the knowledge of something unpleasant while walking. Being that the test subjects were students who were participating as part of a research-participation course requirement; the dread-causing idea was:

“After the tour you will have 10 minutes to write an essay that is 2 full pages in length about the structural elements of the building”.

Even this terrifying idea, which was intended to sour their opinion of the walk they were taking, was unable to reduce the positive gains of walking by much, despite the expressed expectation by the subjects that they would feel worse. The students found out after their mood was measured that they also didn’t have to write the essay. This elation was not recorded.

The authors did, however, have to conceal the purpose of the actions from the subjects during the experiment to avoid corrupted data. Because of this they cannot say for certain that it was the walking that caused the improved mood, but they can rule out several other possible factors.

The idea that movement improves mood goes back to long ago. Charles Darwin himself supposed that: “Now with animals of all kinds, the acquirement of almost all their pleasures, with the exception of those of warmth and rest, are associated with active movements.” This study seems to support this. So if you want to feel better, get moving.

And if you need another reason to stretch your legs: