Feeling glum? Don't just go for a walk. Try adding a bounce to your step as well.
While previous research has shown that regular walks can boost your mood, a new study published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry suggests your gait may also affect your frame of mind.
The study, conducted by researchers from Queen's University and Germany's Witten Herdecke University and University of Hildesheim, found participants were more inclined to focus on the negative if they walked in a manner that mimicked the movement patterns of depressed patients, characterized by a host of features, such as slumped shoulders, head positioned forward and subtler arm swings.
The researchers read out to 47 student volunteers a list of 20 positive and 20 negative words in random order, such as "pretty" and "anxious," and asked them to walk for several minutes on a treadmill, while wearing a suit that monitored their movements. The participants were asked to watch a feedback gauge on a screen as they walked, and were instructed to move the gauge in one direction or the other by altering the way they carried themselves. Unaware that the gauge responded to whether they used a depressed gait or happy gait (characterized by a bouncier step and greater arm swings), the participants quickly adopted the walking style they were randomly assigned. While still walking, they were then asked to recall as many of the words they were initially presented as possible.
Participants with a happy gait recalled an average of six positive words and 3.8 negative words. Those with a depressed gait were able to remember slightly fewer positive words, on average 5.47, but a markedly greater number of negative words, on average 5.63.
"Of course, we know that depending on how you feel, you're keeping your body differently and you might walk a little bit differently and there's nothing surprising about that," says researcher Nikolaus Troje, professor of psychology at Queen's University and one of the authors of the study. "Here, we do it the other way around; we have people walk two different ways and they don't know what they are doing … and yet what changes is that they show different kinds of what we call 'memory biases.' "
These memory biases matter because those who suffer from depression tend to pay more attention to the negative events in their lives and remember them more strongly than they do positive events, Troje explains. "That keeps you in that self-perpetuating depressive cycle: because you feel bad … you remember bad things. And because you are remembering bad things, you're feeling bad."
The study's findings may offer a way of breaking that cycle, Troje says.
"If you are just pretending to walk … as someone who is more happy, you remember less negative events," he says, though he notes further research needs to be done to determine whether the results can be replicated in a clinical setting with depressed patients.
The study adds to growing research that points to the power of body language on the mind. Previous studies have shown you can reduce stress and feel happier simply by smiling. Meanwhile, striking "power poses" by adopting expansive positioning for mere minutes, like leaning over a desk with hands planted, can actually make you feel more confident and assertive.
All this suggests the sensory areas of the brain, which are responsible for processing information from our environment, and the motor areas, which are responsible for generating and controlling movement, are more closely connected than scientists previously thought, Troje says.
"We talk about the embodiment of sensory information or the embodiment of emotions, meaning that lots of sensory information is stored and represented in the motor system," he says. "And if you adopt that view, it's not that surprising that there [are] causal connections in either direction. So not just sensory information controlling your motor system, but also what's happening in the motor system affecting your perception and your sensory system."