By Josie Rubio

When you set out on a walk or jog, it often feels like the end is nowhere in sight. A new study, however, provides insight into how to make that finish line seem closer and your exercise routine seem easier overall. If you focus on a goal while walking—literally keeping your eyes on the prize—the distance seems shorter and you’ll actually move faster.

"People are less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which can happen when distances to be walked appear quite long," says study co-author Emily Balcetis, an assistant professor in the New York University 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 at surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster and also makes exercising seem easier."

The official term is “attentional narrowing,” and Balcetis says, this strategy “might help people exercise more effectively because it makes physical activity look easier.”

Some participants in the study were asked to focus on a cooler as they walked toward it, while other group participants were instructed to look wherever they wanted as they neared the goal. In another experiment, a group wearing ankle weights walked across a gym floor focusing on a cone at the finish line, and other participants could let their gazes wander naturally.

Focusing on an object while you're walking or running--like cones on the street, or a building a few blocks away--can make exercise seem a little easier.

Focusing on an object while you're walking or running--like cones on the street, or a building a few blocks away--can make exercise seem a little easier.

The results of both experiments, published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, found that those in the narrowed attention group thought the goals were closer, and they walked faster and reported that the activity required less exertion.

The study focused on walking to include participants who didn’t feel fit enough to be comfortable running, says Balcetis, but she adds that the attentional narrowing technique might also be used for those who prefer a faster pace, jogging or running.

If your route is a few miles, of course, you may not be able to see that far without a set of binoculars or X-ray specs. Instead, set short-term goals along the route. “The goal need not be a finish line, per se,” Balcetis says. “Any tangible object people can focus their attention on would work. By focusing attention on a stop sign, a lamppost, or the mailbox at the end of the block, people have a goal in mind and in sight that they can use to direct their attention to, and reduce their perceptions of distance.”

Focus is important, but if you’re picturing falling over a toy left in a driveway or down an open manhole on your morning jog as you gaze off into the distance, don’t worry. “While we tested our strategy in a safe environment where people would not necessarily need to be looking around, if people apply this strategy while they are walking through their neighborhood, it seems advisable that they do take in to account their greater surroundings,” she says. You can keep your attention on the goal ahead—but not necessarily at the expense of ignoring traffic and possible obstacles.

Previous research conducted by Balcetis found that people who were overweight saw distances as farther than people of an average weight. “We measured waist-to-hip ratio as an indicator of fitness,” she says. “People with higher waist-to-hip ratios perceived distances as greater, only when they had low motivation to exercise.”

For those trying to lose weight, finding motivation might make working out seem easier—and that’s a pretty good motivating factor in itself.


Photo by Pavel Losevsky