Long walks can improve moods and reduce anxiety, but the benefits may be greatest if the walks take place outdoors rather than in a gym, according to a new study by researchers in Austria. And while the Alps may be a particularly fine place to hike, a vigorous walk in the woods or paths near home may provide the mental boost we need to keep us moving.
We all know, by now, that for optimal health, we need to move. But research and anecdotal experience indicate that people rarely exercise if they do not enjoy it. Workouts, for many, are something like possessions: If they don’t spark joy, they tend to be discarded.
Many different aspects of exercise are thought to affect how much we like working out. But in general, most experts agree that a workout’s intensity and its duration have the greatest influence on our feelings about it.
In recent years, many scientists and other experts have focused their attention on short, intense workouts, typically called high-intensity interval training, because the duration is so slight, lessening the likelihood that people will be too busy to exercise. But while many people who take up high-intensity interval training report being pleased by the workouts’ brevity, they often also say that the intensity is not fun for them, which, over the long term, could discourage them from continuing.
So for the new study, which was published last month in PLOS One, researchers at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and other institutions decided to investigate whether flipping a workout’s focus and emphasizing its length while playing down its intensity might increase people’s enjoyment and, potentially, participation.
In other words, the researchers wondered whether long, relatively gentle walks would make people happy and, if so, whether some types of walks would be more pleasurable than others.
To find out, they first recruited about 40 healthy men and women from in and around Innsbruck and asked them to complete a series of detailed questionnaires about their moods and level of anxiety, both at that moment and in general.
Then they asked each volunteer to complete several prolonged workouts.
One of these involved hiking in the mountains above the town of Innsbruck with a guide. Before they started, the volunteers repeated the mood tests. Then they walked in groups of three or four along a popular mountain trail that climbs sinuously and persistently. The volunteers wore heart rate monitors and were told to move at a brisk but not punishing pace, so that they were breathing rapidly but could converse with one another.
Midway through the hike, they stopped at a hut and told researchers how strenuous the walking had felt, on a scale of 1 to 20, before descending and repeating the questionnaires about their moods.
The entire walk lasted about three hours.
On a separate day, each volunteer completed virtually the same workout on a treadmill at a gym in Innsbruck. The machines’ inclines were set to simulate the uphill hike for the first half of the workout, with flat walking after that (since the machines could not be set for negative altitude gain). Volunteers walked next to one another and were encouraged to chat. They all also completed the estimations of effort and mood.
Then on a final day as a control session, they all sat for about three hours in a communal room at the university equipped with computers, magazines and couches, where they could surf or talk and, before and after, assess their moods.
At the end, the scientists compared their mood scores and other assessments.
The mountain hiking turned out to have been, objectively, the most strenuous of the workouts. Although the altitude gains during the indoor and outdoor walking had been comparable, people’s heart rates had risen higher during the mountain hike.
But, interestingly, almost all the participants reported that the outdoor effort had felt less strenuous to them than their time on the treadmill.
And their mood scores were much higher after the outdoor hike than the treadmill workout, indicating that they had enjoyed that workout more than being in the gym.
On the other hand, the long walk in the gym had left them almost uniformly happier and more relaxed than after sitting and using a computer or chatting for several hours.
In essence, walking had been “more pleasurable” than not walking, even though the walks’ duration had been long, says Martin Niedermeier, a professor of sport science at the University of Innsbruck who led the study.
But walking outside in the serene, shadowed beauty of the mountains provided additive benefits for mood, he says, suggesting that people might be more likely to continue with a walking program on paths and trails than treadmills.
These results could have particular resonance for people who have tried brief, intense workouts and disliked them. Long, brisk walks might turn out to be more appealing, he says.
But this study looked only at a single instance of each workout; it did not follow people to see if they would voluntarily keep walking or measure the extent to which the prolonged walks affected their health and fitness.
It also cannot tell us how to carve out the time for a prolonged hike, although summer days are long, weekend hours are plentiful and, for most of us, parks if not peaks are nearby.