By Martha C. White
April 23, 2015

Ever get so stressed you want to tell your boss to go take a hike? Maybe you’d be better off if you took that advice yourself.

New research finds that a half-hour walk at lunchtime promotes increased relaxation and reduced stress among office workers. “Walking… seems to have both energizing and relaxing properties in the workplace,” writes lead author Cecilie Thøgersen-Ntoumani, an associate professor in the Psychology and Speech Pathology School at Curtin University in Australia.

In an experiment with 75 university administrative staff members that asked participants for frequent, real-time feedback over the 10-week course of the study, subjects reported being more relaxed, more enthusiastic and less nervous on afternoons following the lunchtime walks they took three times a week.

“On days in which participants walked during lunchtimes, they experienced significantly greater levels of enthusiasm and relaxation at work during the afternoon compared with afternoons when they had not walked at
lunchtime,” Thøgersen-Ntoumani writes. This combination, she finds, gave the employees more motivation and made them feel like they were doing a better job at work.

The new study does come with some caveats: Among the subjects (more than 90% of the whom were women), some seemed to experience more fatigue after walks on days that were dark or cold, and the walking was conducted in groups, leaving open the possibility that the social interaction could help boost people’s moods as well as the physical activity.

But these findings are worth taking seriously because they build on a body of earlier research that say exercise can effectively reduce stress, including workplace stress. For instance, British researchers found that people who exercised before work or at lunchtime reported enhanced performance on the job, being better able to manage their workload and time management. They also said they were more motivated and better able to deal with stressful situations that arose.

An online Harvard Business Review article last year offers some clues as to what’s behind this. People who exercise feel more capable of tackling tasks or challenges — and feeling like you’ve got a handle on whatever the boss or a client throws at you can go a long way towards lowering your stress.

One of the biggest obstacles to exercise is a lack of time, but you don’t need an hour — or even a half-hour — to benefit: “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong,” psychology professor Michael Otto tells the American Psychology Association’s Monitor on Psychology. “Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”

And you don’t need to be a gym rat to begin with: The subjects in Thøgersen-Ntoumani’s study were all sedentary, defined as getting less than 150 minutes of physical activity a week, and they benefitted from those midday strolls. “The increase in sedentary jobs requires innovative solutions to help get employees more physically active at work,” she writes. “The lunchtime walking program tested as part of this study… indicated that it was effective” at targeting sedentary employees, she concludes.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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