Study confirms exercise slows our perception of time

Recent research published in the journal Brain and behavior revealed a fascinating aspect of human psychology: our perception of time can be altered by physical exercise. Specifically, individuals tend to experience time as moving more slowly when they are exercising than when they are at rest or after completing their exercise. This study is pioneering in its approach, using a standardized test to measure time perception during self-paced maximal exercise, a scenario that closely reflects actual athletic performance.

The concept that psychological time can differ from chronological time was famously illustrated by Albert Einstein’s analogy of sitting with a pretty girl versus sitting on a hot stove. Previous research has shown that exercise can distort our perception of time, making it seem like it’s moving more slowly. This phenomenon has been observed to potentially affect athletes who must measure themselves against time or competitors.

However, previous studies were limited to fixed-intensity exercises, failing to account for the variable-intensity, self-paced efforts seen in competitive sports. This gap in research led to the present study, aimed at understanding how time perception is affected during exercise that reflects a competitive environment.

“I have long been interested in how people perceive the passage of time and whether this is influenced by particular events. In the case of exercise, time seems to stretch in some circumstances and yet in others it passes very quickly. I was intrigued to look at the implications of this for performance and whether it likely impacted both outcomes and compliance,” said study author Andrew Mark Edwards, professor and director from the School of Psychology and Life Sciences at Christ Church University, Canterbury and author of The Psychopath.

The study included 33 participants, a mix of moderately and very active individuals, who were not professional cyclists but were healthy and able to participate in physical events. They took part in a series of cycling trials on a Velotron cycle ergometer, designed to simulate a 4 kilometer race. During these trials, participants’ perception of time was assessed at several time points: before exercise, during and after, with intervals during exercise at specific distances.

Participants performed the time perception task by estimating the duration of 30- and 60-second intervals without any feedback on their accuracy, to avoid bias in subsequent testing. Cycling trials included different conditions: solo trials, trials with a passive companion avatar, and competitive trials against an active opponent avatar.

The researchers found that participants perceived time to pass more slowly during their physical activity than during periods before or after exercise. This result was consistent regardless of the specific moments of the exercise during which perception was measured, whether at the beginning or at the end of the session.

The results indicated that the slowing of time perception was not influenced by the three different conditions. This suggests that the presence of competitors or the nature of the competitive environment does not alter how we perceive time during exercise, highlighting that it is the act of exercising that primarily influences time perception.

“The take-home message from this study is that our perception of time is indeed influenced by exercise,” Edwards told PsyPost. “This could be useful information for precisely pacing sports and physical activities, for example by designing strategies to alleviate periods when time seems to drag on and can be demotivating.”

Another notable aspect of the study results was the lack of correlation between rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and time perception. This is particularly interesting because it suggests that subjective exercise intensity does not alter time perception. This contradicts some previous hypotheses that more intense physical exertion could increase the distortion of time perception.

“Our study showed that exercise itself had an impact on time perception, but in this experiment we did not distinguish between different stages of exercise, for example when one feels cooler or more tired. Our previous study seemed to indicate that this was the case, but further work is needed to clarify the context,” Edwards said.

While this study advances our understanding of psychological time during exercise, it also highlights several areas for future research. A limitation lies in the use of non-professional cyclists, which could affect the generalizability of the results to professional athletes or people accustomed to high-intensity competitive sports.

“This was a study of participants active in a single mode of exercise, so the results should be considered in the context of that activity/population,” Edwards explained. “Further work is needed to see if this is widely applicable.”

Future studies could also examine how manipulating awareness and concentration during exercise might affect time perception. This could have practical applications not only for athletes, but also for clinical settings where exercise is used as part of therapy or rehabilitation.

“The main areas of work are to see how we can motivate people to exercise and avoid/mitigate negative associations with time seemingly passing slowly,” Edwards said. “We are also interested in strategies to improve performance through external reinforcement and pace setting to correct temporal distortions.”

“We hope that people will appreciate our work and follow our further studies in this field, including among professional athletes.”

The study, “Time perception is slowed in response to exercise, an effect not yet compounded by competitors: Behavioral implications for exercise and health,” was authored by Andrew Mark Edwards, Stein Gerrit Paul Menting, Marije Titia Elferink-Gemser and Florentine Johanna Hettinga.

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