Time warps when you exercise: Study confirms that exercise slows down our perception of time

Recent research published in the journal Brain and behavior has revealed a fascinating aspect of human psychology: our perception of time can be altered by physical exercise. Specifically, people tend to experience time moving more slowly when they are exercising compared to when they are at rest or after completing exercise. This study is pioneering in its approach, using a standardized test to measure time perception during a self-paced maximal exercise scenario that closely mirrors 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 found that physical exercise could distort our sense of time, making it seem like it’s moving more slowly. It has been observed that this phenomenon can affect athletes who need to pace against time or competitors.

However, previous studies were limited to fixed-intensity exercise, not taking into account the self-paced variable-intensity efforts observed in competitive sports. This gap in research led to the current 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 affected by specific events. In the case of exercise, time seems to drag in certain circumstances and in others it moves very quickly. I was intrigued to examine the performance implications of this and whether this likely affected both outcomes and adherence,” said study author Andrew Mark Edwards, professor and head of the School of Psychology and Science of Life at Canterbury Christ Church University and author of The Psychopath.

The study included 33 participants, a mix of moderately and highly active individuals, who were not professional cyclists but were in good health and able to participate in physical tests. They participated in a series of cycling tests on a Velotron cycling ergometer, which were designed to simulate a 4km race. During these trials, participants’ time perception was assessed at several points: before, during, and after exercise, with intervals during exercise at specific distances.

Participants performed the time perception task by estimating how long the 30-second and 60-second intervals lasted without any feedback about their accuracy, to avoid bias in posttests. The 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 as moving more slowly during their physical activity compared to periods before or after exercise. This finding was consistent regardless of the specific times during exercise at which moment perception was measured either 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 the way we perceive time during exercise, highlighting that it is the act of exercising that primarily influences time perception.

“The message from this study is that our perception of time is indeed affected by exercise,” Edwards told PsyPost. “This could be useful information regarding precise pacing of sports and exercise activities, such as devising strategies to mitigate periods when time seems to drag and can be demotivating.”

Another notable aspect of the study’s findings was the lack of correlation between rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and time perception. This is particularly interesting because it suggests that the subjective intensity of exercise does not alter the perception of time. This contradicts some previous hypotheses that postulated that higher physical effort could improve the distortion of time perception.

“Our study showed that exercise per se affected time perception, but in this experiment it did not discriminate between different stages of exercise, such as when you felt fresher or more tired. Our previous study seemed to indicate that this was the case, but more work is needed to clarify the context,” Edwards said.

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

“This was a study of recreationally active participants in only one 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 broadly applicable.”

Future studies could also look at how manipulating awareness and focus 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 thrusts of the work are to see how we can motivate people to exercise and avoid/mitigate negative associations with time that seems to move slowly,” said Edwards. “We are also interested in strategies to improve performance by using external reinforcement and pacing to correct for timing distortions.”

“We hope people will enjoy the work and we look forward to our further studies in this area, including among professional athletes.”

The study, “Time perception slows in response to exercise, an effect not exacerbated by competitors: behavioral implications for exercise and health,” was written by Andrew Mark Edwards, Stein Gerrit Paul Menting, Marije Titia Elferink-Gemser and Florentina Johanna Hettinga.

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