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One Technique That Will Help You See Exercise as Easier, Literally

How Changing Your Focus Can Improve Your Workouts

by
author image Emily Balcetis
Emily Balcetis is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University. Originally from Nebraska, she earned her PhD in Social and Personality Psychology from Cornell University in 2006. Her research explores how motivations influence visual perception, leading people to see what they want to see across domains including health and fitness, legal and political decision making, and interpersonal relationships among others.
One Technique That Will Help You See Exercise as Easier, Literally
Photo Credit Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images

Overview

We are not exercising enough. A 2014 report from the World Health Organization states that 35 percent of adults worldwide do not meet weekly recommended levels of physically activity. But it’s not for lack of interest. Most people know they need to exercise. So what’s the problem? Why are people finding it difficult to meet the recommendations for physical activity and their own fitness goals? And just who is it that exercises enough?

The answer has to do with visualization. The way we see the gym we’re in, the course to the finish line or the path on which we hike changes the quality of exercise. Research my colleagues Shana Cole and Matt Riccio and I published in the September 2014 issue of Motivation and Emotion shows that the way we look at our environment impacts our exercise experience. What you pay attention to can make exercise appear easier or harder, which will either help or hinder your progress toward your goals.

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According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.4 billion adults and 42 million kids under the age of 5 are overweight or obese worldwide. “Eyes on the prize” may help people exercise more effectively because it makes physical activity seem easier.

Make “Eyes on the Prize” More Than a Slogan

In the study, we tested men and women during a bout of moderately challenging exercise, asking them to walk quickly while carrying extra weight. We gave half of the participants a strategy we thought might make the exercise look and feel easier, which we called “eyes on the prize.” But rather than being a cliché on an inspirational poster, the name describes where your eyes should go. Participants directed their gaze at the finish line, avoided looking around and imagined a spotlight was shining on the finish line.

Then we compared the effectiveness of this strategy with our baseline group, who were instructed to look around as they naturally would. After practicing one of these two strategies, people estimated the distance to the finish line. It turns out that keeping their eyes on the prize changed how far away the finish line looked. People who kept their eyes on the finish line perceived it as 30 percent closer than people who looked around.

“Eyes on the prize” also changed the experience of exercise. People who focused on the finish line also felt that the exercise was easier. They reported that the exercise required 17 percent less exertion than the baseline group, and they walked 23 percent faster. Simply changing how people looked around when walking improved the quality of their exercise and made the goal seem easier to attain.

And the “eyes on the prize” strategy is one that anyone can benefit from -- whether you’re already fit or struggling to get there. In fact, without this strategy, people who are tired, older, overweight or experiencing chronic back pain see moving around in their environments as more challenging. Research published in a 2006 Perspectives on Psychological Science article by Dennis Proffit, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, found that distances look farther and hills looks steeper to people who are physically unfit. When energy is in short supply and it’s harder to move, our environments literally look more challenging.

Set Challenging Goals You Can Achieve

Although our minds determine how we perceive exercise, we can teach ourselves to see it differently. We can train ourselves to focus on our goal. And when we use this strategy to make the goal look closer, the exercise becomes easier.

Creating a healthier lifestyle requires that we set goals that will push us to improve. But if the goals are too difficult, we give up. Finding the sweet spot helps. People are more likely to meet their goals if they craft ones that are challenging but feasible. And when we set these types of goals, our bodies experience physiological changes that help us to meet them.

Rex Wright and colleagues conducted a study published in the June 2012 issue of Psychophysiology that demonstrated that people’s bodies help them meet goals that seem challenging but still achievable. Researchers asked women to walk at a modest pace (two miles per hour) on a treadmill for 10 minutes while wearing either a five- or 25-pound weighted vest. Next, women cycled on a recumbent stationary bike for 10 minutes at either a low or high RPM while researchers measured and noted any changes in systolic blood pressure to determine when the body had mobilized energy to assist physical activity.

The researchers found that the group with the lighter weighted vests experiences more cardiovascular activation and increased systolic blood pressure during the more challenging cycling exercise, suggesting their bodies were prepared to take on the more strenuous exercise. But women who were already tired from wearing the heavier weight vests showed an entirely different pattern of cardiovascular effects. Systolic blood pressure actually decreased for them when attempting to meet the challenging cycling goal. Their bodies, in a sense, turned off and failed to meet the challenges of the second exercise when it was very difficult.

When we set challenging, attainable goals, our bodies respond to exercise to help us achieve them. But first we need to feel that we have the physical resources to meet those goals. When we have more energy, the goal needs to be more challenging. When we’re tried, the goal needs to be easier. And if we find that balance, our cardiovascular systems will contribute the effort a lot more effectively during exercise.

Combat the Fitness Problem From Multiple Sides

Over the past several years, state and federal programs have tried to change alarming trends and reduce the rising numbers of overweight and obese individuals. New York City, for instance, requires fast-food companies to display calorie counts. Restaurants can’t use trans fats. The United Stated Department of Agriculture requires that school vending machines sell only snacks with 200 calories or fewer. Elementary and middle schools can only sell water, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juices and low-fat milk. And the Food and Drug Administration recently set rules into place for restaurants to require calorie counts on their menus.

Although changing the way we eat will go a long way toward improving overall health, we still need to find strategies to increase exercise as well. Programs like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! and the NFL’s Play 60 are helping Americans -- especially children -- find ways to eat healthier and move more, which are essential in promoting a healthy lifestyle.

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