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The study included nearly 2,000 participants from the Walking for Health program in England, which organizes nearly 3,000 group walks each week.
The researchers found that people who'd recently gone through a stressful event such as a serious illness, job loss, marriage breakup or death of a loved one had a significant mood boost after outdoor group walks.
"We hear people say they feel better after a walk or going outside but there haven't been many studies of this large size to support the conclusion that these behaviors actually improve your mental health and well-being," study senior author Dr. Sara Warber, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School, said in a university news release.
"Walking is an inexpensive, low risk and accessible form of exercise and it turns out that combined with nature and group settings, it may be a very powerful, under-utilized stress buster," Warber said.
"Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone's daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression," she explained.
The study was published online recently in the journal Ecopsychology.
"Given the increase in mental ill health and physical inactivity in the developed world, we are constantly exploring new, accessible ways to help people improve their long-term quality of life and well-being," Warber said.
"Group walks in local natural environments may make a potentially important contribution to public health and be beneficial in helping people cope with stress and experience improved emotions," she concluded.
-- Robert Preidt
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SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, Sept. 19, 2014