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Focusing on Target Ahead Makes Exercise Seem Easier

Focusing on Target Ahead Makes Exercise Seem Easier

During your next walk, try focusing on a specific target ahead — that can make the distance appear shorter and help you get there faster, according to psychology researchers at New York University.

Their study, which compares the “target-focusing” technique to naturally looking around the environment, may help people improve their 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,” said co-author Emily Balcetis, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology.

“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 researchers, whose findings are published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, focused on “attentional narrowing,” a technique which affects perceptions of space. They hypothesized that limiting attention to a goal line would make it appear closer, increase walking speed, and reduce feelings of physical exertion.

Previous research conducted in Balcetis’ lab found that overweight people see distances as farther than those who are average weight, especially when they are not feeling motivated to exercise.

The new research found that attentional narrowing acts as an intervention, changing perceptions of distance, so that all people can see the distances in ways that fit people see it.

In one experiment, 66 adult participants visiting a New York City park in the summer stood 12 feet away from an open cooler, which contained cold beverages and ice. The researcher told the participants that they would estimate the distance to the cooler.

One group of volunteers was randomly assigned to a narrowed attention technique in which they imagined that a spotlight was shining only on the cooler. They learned that to be effective at estimating distance, they should direct and focus their attention on the cooler and avoid looking around the environment.

The second set of subjects were instructed to allow their attention to move naturally and in whatever way they found to be most helpful for estimating distance.

Participants who focused their attention only on the cooler perceived the cooler as closer than did those in the natural attention group.

In a second experiment, 73 participants walked 20 feet in a gymnasium wearing ankle weights that added 15 percent to their body weight.

As in the first experiment, one group of volunteers received the narrowed attention instructions (they were asked to focus on a traffic cone marking a finish line) and the other group received the natural attention instructions (they were told to glance at the cone as well as look at their surroundings). Each group then completed the walking test while being timed by the experimenters.

Once again, attentional narrowing changed perceptions of distance, speed of walking, and perceived effort.

Those in the narrowed attention group perceived the cones to be 28 percent closer than did those in the natural condition group. Furthermore, those in the narrowed attention group walked 23 percent faster than did those in the natural attention group.

Finally, the narrowed attention group reported that the walk required less physical exertion than did those in the natural condition group — a finding that may serve as an incentive to exercise.

“Physical activity is an important component of a healthy lifestyle,” said Shana Cole, an New York University doctoral student at the time of the study and now an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University.

“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: New York University

Woman walking looking at trees ahead of her photo by shutterstock.

Focusing on Target Ahead Makes Exercise Seem Easier

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Focusing on Target Ahead Makes Exercise Seem Easier. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 18 Oct 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.