How to think positively: Change your walk

Study suggests that you could walk your way to an improved state of mind

Most self-help advice on how to alter destructive thought patterns focuses on the thoughts themselves, encouraging people to reflect on their attitudes and replace them with more constructive alternatives.  However, new research published in the Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry shows that there may be an additional way to gain control over your mind: by walking like a happy person.

“It is not surprising that our mood, the way we feel, affects how we walk, but we want to see whether the way we move also affects how we feel,” explained Nikolaus Troje, professor at Queen’s University in Canada and co-author of the paper.

In order to address this question, Dr Troje and his colleagues set out to establish whether encouraging people to walk in a depressed or a happy manner would affect their memory of emotionally loaded words. The way we retain emotionally charged information is affected by our mood, with those suffering from depression remembering negative material far more easily than positive messages, especially when the information is about them.

Using a treadmill and an optical motion capture system including 17 cameras, the researchers examined the gait of 47 subjects. Half of the participants were encouraged to mimic a depressive walking style, whilst the other half moved like a happy person. Walking speed was kept equal for both groups.

Not wanting the participants to know what the study was about, the researchers avoided using verbal descriptions of the desired walk, and instead used a visual gauge that responded to the subjects’ gait. The examinees’ task was to play around with their walk until the dial moved to the extreme end of the scale, corresponding to either a happy or a depressed walking style.

During the time on the treadmill, the experimenter read out a list of positive and negative words, asking the participants to decide whether or not each word described them well. Afterwards, subjects were asked to recite as many of the words as they could remember.

As expected, those who had been mimicking a depressed walk recalled significantly more negative words than those that had been marching along in a happy manner.

This finding indicates that our walk influences the way we process information, and the researchers believe that adapting walking style could have a place in treatments for depression. The memory bias favouring negative information makes those suffering from the disease feel even worse, creating a spiral effect that can be a challenge to escape.

“If you can break that self-perpetuating cycle, you might have a strong therapeutic tool to work with depressive patients,” said Dr Troje.