Exercise Changes Perception Of Time, Says New Study

Exercise has long been touted for both its physical and mental health benefits, but recent research adds an intriguing twist to the understanding of its effects, indicating it can also alter the perception of time.

The study, published in the journal Brain and Behavior and led by researchers from the U.K. and The Netherlands indicates that time seems to slow down when people engage in physical activity.

The study involved 33 active adults who participated in controlled experiments where they cycled in virtual environments for 4 kilometres at a time. These environments were designed to be both engaging and challenging, including the presence of virtual competitors to test if social dynamics could influence time perception. The participants then completed time perception tasks at three different intervals: before, during, and after their exercise sessions.

The findings revealed a significant distortion in the participants' perception of time during exercise. Specifically, time appeared to stretch, making periods of physical activity feel longer than they actually were. This phenomenon was consistent regardless of the presence of virtual competitors, indicating that the act of exercising itself, rather than whether other individuals were preset, was responsible for this time-warping effect.

"Our findings have important implications for healthy exercise choices, enjoyment levels and also for how we use this information to optimise performance,” said Professor Andrew Edwards, co-lead author of the work from Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, U.K. in a press release.

The paper suggests that if time perception can be manipulated to make workouts feel less burdensome or lengthy, more people could be encouraged to engage in regular physical activity, improving overall health and fitness levels. For example, shorter, high-intensity workouts that feel longer could be integrated into fitness regimes, providing the benefits of extended exercise sessions without the associated time commitment. The researchers also suggest that understanding how time perception changes during exercise could help in developing new strategies to make physical activity more enjoyable, potentially increasing adherence to exercise routines.

"The main strands of the work are to see how we can motivate people to engage with exercise, avoid/mitigate negative associations with time appearing to move slowly and perhaps see if we can use this apparent slowing of time to our advantage," said Edwards.

However, the researchers are keen to point out the limitations of the study, including that the participants in the study were all quite fit and exercised regularly to start with, so they can't say whether the results would be similar for people who are less fit and don't partake in regular exercise.

"It's still unclear whether the results are generalizable. The sample size of 33 people offer an intriguing first glimpse into how our perception of time can be warped — and perhaps a clue as to how to take things to the next level while exercising,” said Edwards.

The research team plans to expand their studies to include a more diverse range of participants, exploring how different demographics and fitness levels experience time distortion during exercise. They are also planning to investigate how various types of physical activity, beyond cycling, impact time perception and how their findings can be applied to specific populations, such as athletes seeking to optimize their training or individuals undergoing rehabilitation who might benefit from more engaging exercise experiences.

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