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 2016 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 walking.)
Apparently it may be 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 experiment 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 experiment 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 improving our stress levels, according to 2018 research in the journal Environment and Behavior. According to that study, people who walked outside had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who only watched nature scenes or only walked indoors on a treadmill. (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. Plus, here’s what to do if you can’t take 10,000 steps a day.