We’ve all had those days where bring run over by a car sounds more appealing than getting up off the couch and going to the gym for a workout. We wonder to ourselves “How come so and so always looks enthusiastic and motivated to exercise and I can’t keep up my momentum for more than a month?” Well, science has wondered about that same question and come up with a solid conclusion. Perception is subjective. What we think we see is actually filtered through our own mind’s eye and that is why some people find it easy to exercise while others find it absolutely impossible.
Perception is Subjective
Physically speaking, the only thing our eyes can actually see with great sharpness, clarity and accuracy is the equivalent of the surface area of our thumb on our outstretched arm. Everything else around that is blurry, making much of what is presented to our eyes as ambiguous. The fact that tiny amount is the only thing we physically see with clarity causes our brains to fill in the rest of the gaps to make up the entire picture. As a result, perception is a subjective experience, and that’s how we end up seeing through our own mind’s eye. So when it comes to diet and exercise some people may literally see it as more difficult and other as easier.
To test this statement, Social psychologist Emily Balcetis and her team of researchers gathered objective measurements of people’s physical fitness, measuring the circumference of their waist and the circumference of their hips. Based on feedback that they gave them, some of the participants said they’re not motivated to exercise any more, feeling they’ve already met their fitness goals. The others however, said they were highly motivated to exercise and had a strong goal to make it to the finish line. But before having both groups walk to the finish line, the researchers had them estimate the distance. They found that waist-to-hip ratio predicted perceptions of distance. Unfit individuals saw the distance as farther, as opposed to people who were in better shape. Importantly, though, this only happened for people who were not motivated to exercise. On the other hand, people who were highly motivated to exercise saw the distance as short. Even the most out of shape individuals saw the finish line as just as close, if not slightly closer, than people who were in better shape.
Keep Your Eye on the Prize
The research findings led the team to develop a hypothesis around the strategy known as “keep your eyes on the prize.” This sentence is an actual directive for how to look around your environment. People that were trained in this strategy were told to focus their attention on the finish line, avoid looking around, and imagine a spotlight was shining on their goal and that everything around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see. The others were told to look around normally seeing everything in the background.
As predicted, people who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30 percent closer than people who looked around as they naturally would. They also required 17 percent less exertion for them to do the assigned exercise than people who looked around naturally. Not only did it change their subjective experience of the exercise, it also changed the objective nature of the exercise. People who kept their eyes on the prize actually moved 23 percent faster than people who looked around naturally!