Keeping Your Eyes On The Prize Can Make Exercise Easier, Study Finds


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Fix your eyes on the finish line, and you may cross it faster. Focusing on a distant target instead of scanning your surroundings may make exercise seem easier and help you move at a quicker clip, suggests a New York University study published Sept. 25 in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

It’s not just marathoners who should try this strategy, either. In the fight against obesity, exercise is often ignored, as interventions focused on food steal much of the spotlight. But it’s well-established that obese people are less likely to exercise than normal-weight folks — and one reason may be that lugging around extra weight can make hills seem steeper and distances longer, said study author Shana Cole, now an assistant professor of psychology at Rutgers University. The result: Physical activity becomes even more daunting.

"When an environment appears hard to traverse, it might make people think, ‘Gee, the effort that I need to put into this activity — is it worth it?’" Cole told Yahoo Health. "They think, ’I’ll take the subway, or I’ll take the escalator instead of the stairs.’" It’s not just a mental barrier, either. Research suggests that when a task seems especially tough, our bodies physically disengage, reducing our odds of completing it. And this is true regardless of  person’s physical size, suggesting we’re all subject to the "exercise is hard" excuse.

Related: How Stress Messes With Your Workout

That’s why the NYU researchers decided to test their theory: If we focus on a target in the distance, a finish line, for example, then maybe that goal will seem more attainable. In their first experiment, they had 66 people stand outside on a summer day, just 12 feet from an open cooler stocked with cold drinks. Half of the group was told to train their eyes on the cooler as if a spotlight was shining on it. The other half was directed to let their gaze move around the park naturally. When estimating the distance to the cooler, those who were asked to stare only at the cooler perceived the cold drinks as being closer.

To determine whether this same effect occurs during exercise, the scientists asked 73 people to complete a “weighted walking test,” in which they high-stepped toward a finish line with heavy weights strapped to their ankles. Just like the first experiment, the folks who focused on the target — in this case, a brightly colored traffic cone — thought it seemed closer than those who were instructed to scan their surroundings.

And that translated to a more efficient, enjoyable workout: The narrowly focused exercisers walked more quickly and afterward reported that the task seemed easier. In other words, staring down that traffic cone made exercising significantly less miserable — an interesting finding that may explain why treadmill exercise, where there’s no far-off goal to focus on, is often considered agonizing, said Cole.

It’s a simple visual trick: By focusing on a single object, you eliminate the peripheral cues around you, which we normally rely on to gauge distances. As result, “it reduces our depth cues,” said Cole. “Vision scientists have shown that shifts the way we perceive distances. It makes the target, now in our central field of vision, seem much closer.”

And that simple visual shift can lead to a major boost in motivation. “The distance itself is never actually changing,” pointed out Cole. “So what is changing? Seeing your goal as within reach makes you feel like you can do it. And that’s really powerful. People have this ‘I can do it feeling,’ which then translates into actual action.” That mental steam may be enough to overcome physical factors that would otherwise hold you back, potentially explaining why the narrowly focused people walked faster.

Related: Why Being Sore After a Workout Isn’t Always a Good Thing

Cole suspects that this trick would work with any kind of exercise in which you can train your eyes on the horizon, such as running, biking, or rowing. If you’re in a race, try focusing on the finish line. Or, if you’re hitting the trail, zero in on the next mile marker that you can see. “This can involve setting subgoals,” noted Cole. “You might say, ‘I’m just going to go to the next stop sign, and once I get there, I’m going to focus on the next one.’”