Walk Yourself Happy

Mary Tweed
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How often do you set out on a walk with your mind full of To Do Lists and worries and come back feeling refreshed and lighter? It is a common experience to many. Walking gives us the opportunity to slow down and notice the seasons, , weather, wildlife and plants around us, which can be uplifting and extremely relaxing.

Recently, walking in Milton Park, Cambridge, on a bitterly cold winter’s day, I noticed a flock of ducks gently paddling on the water. Just as I whipped out my phone to take a photo, a passing dog disturbed them and they all rose up magnificently in unison, enabling me to capture this wonderful shot. It was a magical moment, with the cold sun reflected on the water, which was not dimmed by viewing it through the lens of a camera, although the quacking cacophony lingers on only in my memory.

However, there may have been a deeper psychological reason for my happiness than merely being in the right place at the right time and enjoying the fresh air. Psychologists have long since proven that the mind and body are linked, noting that one of the best methods of improving mood it to take some outdoor exercise. They are able to detect people’s mood based on various indicators, including bodily and verbal information.

In the All In The Mind episode, broadcast on 25 November 2014, Claudia Hammond spoke to Professor Johannes Michalak of Witten Herdecke University, who discovered that training people to walk in a happy manner actually resulted in them having more positive memories. He had noted that people with depression tend to walk in a slower, less dynamic way with a slumped posture, when compared with non-sufferers.

His team divided a random group of volunteers into two and set both groups the task of walking on treadmills. Once they had warmed up they were all asked to emulate a gait demonstrated on a screen in front of them. One half were shown gaits associated with happy people - upright, brisk, with lots of up and down movement - and the other half were shown gaits more often found amongst the depressed. After some time, researchers read out a list of forty words; twenty positive and twenty negative. Participants were asked to decide which words best described them and then instructed to continue walking, copying the screen in front of them, for a further eight minutes. At the end of this time they were asked to recall as many of the words as possible. Those who had walked in a depressed manner recorded a higher proportion of negative words; whereas those who had walked happy brought to mind a higher proportion of positive words.

Although the participants mood was unchanged, the test had effected subtle changes in the way their mind processed information, leading to either a positive or negative bias. This experiment proved that by changing one of the mood indicators, in this case the bodily information, by asking people to walk in a particular way, it had a knock on effect on the verbal outcomes, making them more positive or negative respectively.

The British Nordic Walking 10 step technique trains people to walk in a so called happy style. With an emphasis on good upright posture, the speed generated by the pole push, and the dynamism created by the pole plant and shoulder rotation. Judging by the laughter that normally accompanies the groups I work with, Nordic Walking definitely leads to happiness. Does this mean that Nordic Walkers are happier than normal walkers?

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