Using Visual Perception to Alter Our Experience with Exercise

Emily Balcetis, a social psychologist who studies perceptions and goal-setting, delivered a fascinating TED talk in New York the other week on how to use vision to literally change the exercise experience.

Whether someone just trying to get into shape, or an high-performing athlete, her talk touches on an influential mental trick to improve our ability to reach our fitness goals.

Professional athletes have an incredible ability to channel their focus. After years of playing soccer at a high level and now competing in triathlon, I’ve trained myself to do this as well. In the middle of a match, I didn’t notice how many fans were watching, if my family was cheering, or even how cold or hot it is. It was all about following the flow of play and anticipating my next pass or shot. Likewise with a race, coming to the last 400 meters, my vision often narrows. It’s all about the finish line. My wife will often ask me after the race if I heard her cheering for me or if I saw her. Sometimes I sheepishly admit I didn’t.

But, this is all for a reason, as Balcetis explained in her talk.

“People who kept their eyes on the prize told us afterward that it required 17 percent less exertion for them to do this exercise than people who looked around naturally. It changed their subjective experience of the exercise. It also changed the objective nature of their exercise. People who kept their eyes on the prize actually moved 23 percent faster than people who looked around naturally.

This visual perception trick isn’t just for athletes trying to out-kick their opponent to the finish line. It’s a fascinating, and easy-to-learn and implement approach for anyone who exercises or who is struggling to stay consistent with exercising.

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