You probably know that walking improves your cardiovascular health, and you may be aware that it can also lift your spirits. But we’re betting you didn’t realize how little time it takes for walking to work its mood-brightening magic. According to a brand-new study from psychologists at Iowa State University, walking for just 12 minutes—even without traditional happiness factors like sunshine, nature, social contact, and uptempo music, turns out to be a powerful mood lifter. (Here are more surprising health benefits of taking a short walk.)
Apparently it’s hard-wired in our evolution, as moving has always been connected to positive pursuits—like finding food and other rewards. The study co-authors, psychologists Jeffrey Miller, PhD, and Zlatan Krizan, PhD, write, “movement not only causes increased positive affect [emotional feelings] … but movement partially embodies, or in a sense reflects, positive affect.”
For the study, published in the journal Emotion, the researchers conducted three experiments examining how walking induces positive emotions. The first one tested the effects of walking vs. not walking: One group of college students took an uneventful stroll through campus buildings while a control group watched a video or browsed through photos. The campus stroll yielded feelings of self-assurance, joy, and vigor, while the control subjects dropped a few notches in both attentiveness and mood. A second study asked students to complete a walking tour and then write an essay, which was designed to instill a hint of discomfort. Even with the pressure of writing an essay weighing down on them, the students found that the walk elevated their mood. The third study took nature out of the equation by having students walk on a treadmill—and they still enjoyed mood-boosting results compared to participants who just stood or sat.
If you have a treadmill, go for it, but walking outside—in nature if possible, can maximize the mood boost, even reducing depression and improving our ability to cope with stress, according to earlier research from the University of Michigan. According to that study, people who had recently experienced stressful life events like a serious illness, death of a loved one, marital separation, or unemployment especially saw a mood lift after outdoor group walks. “Walking is an inexpensive, low risk, and accessible form of exercise,” senior study author Sara L. Warber, MD, told the University of Michigan Health System. “And it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster.” Here’s how to get the most happiness from your daily walk.
Next time you’re feeling low—or as a precaution against a blue mood—pop outside for a walk of at least 12 minutes, preferably in nature, and ideally with a friend. Here’s how to be happier every single day!