The new research suggested that while 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 compared the technique to walking while looking around the environment naturally, offered a new strategy to improve the quality of exercise.
New York University's Emily Balcetis, one of the study's co-authors said that people get less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which could happen when distances to be walked appear quite long.
These findings indicated 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, she added.
The study focused on "attentional narrowing," which affects perceptions of space. The researchers, hypothesized that narrowing attention on a finish line would lead it to appear closer, increase walking speed, and reduce feelings of physical exertion.
The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, the study's subjects-66 adults visiting a New York City park in the summer-stood 12 feet away from an open cooler, which contained cold beverages and ice. The experimenter explained to participants that they would estimate the distance to the cooler.
One set of subjects was randomly assigned to a narrowed attention condition 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 was assigned to the natural attention condition and was instructed to allow their attention to move naturally and in whatever way they found to be most helpful for estimating distance.
Subjects 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, the researchers used this intervention to change perceptions of distance and improve the quality of exercise. Here, 73 participants walked 20 feet in a gymnasium while wearing ankle weights that added 15 percent to their body weight, thus making the task more challenging than unfettered walking.
As in the first experiment, one set of participants received the narrowed attention instructions (they were asked to focus on a traffic cone marking a finish line) and the other set received the natural attention condition (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.
The results confirmed the researchers' hypothesis that attentional narrowing changed perceptions of distance, speed of walking, and perceived effort.
The study is published in the journal Motivation and Emotion.