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Keeping Your Eyes on the Prize Can Help with Exercise, NYU Study Finds

New research suggests the adage that encourages people to keep their “eyes on the prize” may be on target when it comes to exercise. When walking, staying focused on a specific target ahead can make the distance to it appear shorter and help people walk there faster, psychology researchers have found. Their study, which compares this technique to walking while looking around the environment naturally, offers a new strategy to improve the quality of exercise.

“People are less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which can happen when distances to be walked appear quite long,” explains New York University’s (NYU’s) Emily Balcetis, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and one of the study’s co-authors. “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.”

The study, which appears in the journal Motivation and Emotion, focused on “attentional narrowing,” which affects perceptions of space.

Related research previously conducted in Balcetis’ lab and published last year found that people who are overweight see distances as farther than those who are average weight, especially when they are not very motivated to exercise.

“People are gaining weight at alarming rates,” Balcetis says. “More than 1.4 billion adults and 40 million kids under the age of 5 are overweight or obese worldwide. And in America, obesity rates have almost tripled in the last 30 years. Attentional narrowing might help people exercise more effectively because it makes physical activity look easier.”

This article was adapted from information provided by New York University.

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