Plenty of us have felt the lifeless lull of a dragging workday — the monotony of cubicles and computer screens; the crawl of afternoon meetings; the tedious repetition that has you channeling Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day.” Maniacally checking Facebook would be the obvious antidote. But, according to a new study, you might want to consider another option: walking.
A new study suggests that taking just a few lunch hour walks each week can have marked benefits on our mood while on the job. Dr. Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani, a professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, and her colleagues recruited 75 university staff members (69 of who were women) who were “physically inactive,” meaning less than 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. The participants were randomized to immediate or delayed “treatment,” consisting of three 30-minute group-led walks at lunchtime during the week and 2 additional weekend walks for a total of ten weeks. Prior to beginning the walking regimen, the delayed group served as a control.
Twice a day, on two random days per week, walkers filled out multiple well-established affect reports on smartphones measuring mood characteristics at work, as well as self-perceived workload. Some of the results were converted into self-determination scores to reflect motivation, or lack thereof. The results, though perhaps somewhat intuitive, were clear.
Compared with controls, those participating in the walking regimen reported significantly greater levels or enthusiasm and relaxation. When comparing the same individuals before and after their lunch hour walks, a drop in nervousness was reported in the afternoon in both the immediate- and delayed-treatment groups; additionally the immediate-treatment group reported increased relaxation and fatigue post-exercise. Finally, walkers on walking days from both groups reported significantly greater levels of afternoon relaxation and enthusiasm at work than they did on non-walking days.
“The study suggests that businesses and managers should encourage lunchtime walking at work among their employees,” says Thøgersen-Ntoumani, “It may be more cost-efficient to set up group-based walking programs than to put in expensive equipment and facilities that are often not used by the majority of the workforce population.”
As Thøgersen-Ntoumani points out, past data relating physical activity to negative mood characteristics like stress and nervousness are inconsistent. A 2011 study reported that physical activity increases positive affect but has no effect on negative affect. Yet, a 2009 meta-analysis reported that exercise interventions at work do reduce general stress levels, supporting her findings. And that daily walking may improve mental well-being makes a certain amount of sense given that our brains and psyches are known to thrive on exercise. Regular physical activity has been linked with improved mood, enhanced creativity and a lower risk of depression. It can also improve symptoms in people with depression or anxiety. The rush of blood and oxygen to the brain that comes with working out also helps stave off cognitive decline, in part by inducing the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory and learning. In fact, exercise is one of the most effective means of preventing or delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Thøgersen-Ntoumani and her group didn’t assess the impact of walking on cognitive factors like attention and memory, but they plan to in the future. And the new study has its limitations. Since the vast majority of participants were female, the findings can’t be generalized to men, though one would assume the results would at least partially carryover. Also the design didn’t take into account natural mood fluctuations throughout the day — our moods tend to dip in the afternoon and evening — and given that walks were conducted in groups, the socializing among participants may have had an impact.
Despite the drawbacks, a major advantage of Thøgersen-Ntoumani’s work over many previous exercise studies is that attendance was recorded by walking group leaders, as opposed to being self-reported. Furthermore, most previous studies on the effects of workday exercise were conducted in active individuals; the new work looked at inactive people, and hence has public health implications for a population at greater risk for physical and mental illness.
Installing workplace walking programs seems an awfully easy way to improve morale and productivity — one that benefits both employees and management, and that Thøgersen-Ntoumani feels employers should seriously consider. Rather than binging on cat videos over takeout our moods would be far better served, it seems, by simply taking a walk.