Healthy Living

During Exercise, Keep Your Eyes On The Prize: How Focus Helps Shorten Perceived Workout Time

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If you visualize your workouts in their totality, rather than bite-sized chunks, science says they'll feel longer and more tiresome. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

For many people, stepping foot in the gym is the hardest part of working out. Your brain may switch into workout mode once you’re there, but overcoming the inertia of watching TV on the couch, knuckle-deep in a bag of something salty, is the true test of will power. New research offers a strategy to conquer this obstacle.

Psychologists from New York University want you to think about your workouts differently. It’s too easy, they argue, to get caught up in the totality of your hour-long cardio-weight training hybrid, and abandon it when time and energy seem scarce. Instead, you should rely on a tactic in psychology known as “attentional narrowing.” By shining a mental spotlight on one exercise at a time, you can fragment the workout and make it seem not only shorter, but easier.

Senior author of the study Emily Balcetis points to the United States’s worsening obesity problem as a motivation for the study. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of the country’s adults are obese, or some 78.6 million people. "People are gaining weight at alarming rates," Balcetis said in a statement, adding childhood obesity rates may be increasing even faster. CDC data show rates among kids 12 to 19 years old increased from five percent to 21 percent between 1980 and 2012.

The new findings may give people added incentive to work out, provided what’s stopping them is a mental barrier of effort. In their tests, Balcetis and her colleagues created two different scenarios. The first asked people to estimate how far away they thought a given water cooler was. One group was told to shine a mental spotlight on the cooler, blocking out everything else. The other group was simply asked to take a guess.

The second test involved people wearing ankle weights and estimating the length of a walk, from one end a gymnasium to a fixed point 20 feet away, marked by a traffic cone. Again, one group was asked to focus only on the cone when they made their guesses, while the other group was basically told to take a shot in the dark. In both experiments, those who had shone their mental spotlights on the desired object saw it as closer than the other group. And in the follow-up test, subjects said the cone was 28 percent closer and walked the distance 23 percent faster. They also reported the walk being less strenuous.

“These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster, and also makes exercising seem easier,” Balcetis said.

The findings may also shed light on getting through other workouts. In addition to motivating outdoor running over treadmill running, given the lack of visual cues that tell you you’re making progress, the study suggests other forms of exercise, such as weightlifting and yoga, which come with no time or distance constraints, may seem shorter and less intense. For instance, an hour and a half of yoga may seem like a lot, but each pose on its own, held for a handful of seconds, suddenly becomes manageable.

Shana Cole, former NYU doctoral student and now assistant professor at Rutgers University, said the study should help people to reframe their workouts, almost as if they were missions that needed accomplishing. Eventually, individual workouts become the fragmented pieces, and like the exercises themselves, fitness goals seem less daunting.

“Interventions that train people to keep their ‘eyes on the prize’ may play an important role in health and fitness,” she said. “When goals appear within reach, and when people move faster and experience exercise as easier, they may be especially motivated to continue exercising.”

Source: Cole S, Riccio M, Balcetis E. Focused and fired up: Narrowed attention produces perceived proximity and increases goal-relevant action. Motivation and Emotion. 2014.

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