Walk happy, be happy?

Do you walk with a spring in your step, or your shoulders hunched? It probably depends on your mood, but does it work the other way around? A recent study suggests that our mental state may indeed be influenced by our manner of walking.

Happy walking, happy mood

Many studies have shown the positive effect of exercise on mental health, including clinical trials indicating that physical activity can have a similar effect on Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) as medication. But could the way we walk also have an effect? A recent German study explored this question using a word-recall approach, exploiting the fact that MDD leads to a greater recall of negative self-referent material.

People suffering from depression tend to walk at a slower pace, with other characteristic traits including reduced movement of the upper body and a slumped posture. In this trial, students were asked to recall words they had heard while walking either with these distinctive motoric characteristics, or those of a healthy person. The researchers predicted that people walking in a depressed style would remember a greater number of negative words, such as ‘afraid’ and ‘anxious’, than positive words such as ‘pretty’, compared to ‘happy’ walkers. This memory bias would effectively demonstrate a sub-conscious effect on mood.

The trial used a biofeedback approach using a treadmill, in which participants quickly learnt to walk in a manner that moved a gauge to the left or the right depending on their walking style (‘happy’ or ‘depressed’). They listened to a list of positive and negative words during the four-minute session, and afterwards wrote down as many words as they could remember, among other questions that ensured participants were unaware of the trial’s objectives.

Did walking style cause a memory bias? Interestingly, positive recall did not differ between the two groups. However, memory for negative words changed dramatically: depressed walkers remembered three times as many negative words as happy walkers.

The researchers concluded that somatic processes directly affected memory bias, since conscious mood was found to be unaffected in the trial. Exploiting a somatic effect on negative self-referent recall could have a practical application: while it is established that exercise benefits people suffering from depression, it may also be beneficial to modify the style or design of exercise programs and even regular walking, in an extension of conventional treatment.

 

 

Michalak, M., Rohde, K. and Troje, N. F. (2014) How we walk affects what we remember: Gait modifications through biofeedback change negative affective memory bias.Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychology 46, 121-125

 

 

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Veronica Wignall

Veronica is a Biology graduate from the University of Bristol, she is currently an editorial assistant but hopes to move into science media comms! Follow Veronica on Twitter @vronwig

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