By staying focused on a specific target ahead can make the distance appear to be shorter than it actually is and therefore help people walk faster according to new research. The study in the journal Motivation And Emotion focused on what is called “attentional narrowing” which can affect a person’s perception of space. A previous study has found that people who are overweight tend to see distances as farther than those who are of normal and average weight. This tends to be more the case especially when they are not motivated to exercise. Attentional narrowing could be used as a skill in order to help people exercise.

“People are less interested in exercise if physical activity seems daunting, which can happen when distances to be walked appear quite long,” explains New York University’s Emily Balcetis, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and one of the study’s co-authors. “These findings indicate that narrowly focusing visual attention on a specific target, like a building a few blocks ahead, rather than looking around your surroundings, makes that distance appear shorter, helps you walk faster, and also makes exercising seem easier.”

The researchers conducted two experiments. Experiment one included 66 adults who stood 12 feet from a cooler-box opened with cold beverages and ice. They were then told to estimate the distance from themselves to the cooler-box. One set of the participants was randomly assigned to a narrowed attention condition. They learned that to estimate the distance effectively they should focus all their attention only on the cooler-box, imagining a spotlight shining down on it, and avoid looking around at the environment. The second set of participants was assigned to a natural attention condition where they were told to let their attention move naturally and however they felt helped them in estimating the distance.

Those of the narrow attention conditions, which only focused on the cooler-box, did perceive it as being closer than those in the natural group.

The second experiment followed the same conditions as the first where one group had been instructed to follow narrowed attention conditions and the other group natural attentions of a traffic cone marking a finish line. They then had to complete the walking test and were timed by the researchers. The results then confirmed their hypothesis that with attentional narrowing used by the participants their perceptions of distance, speed of walking and perceived effort changed a lot.

The narrowed attention group perceived the cones to be 28% closer and walked 23% faster compared to those in the natural condition group. They also reported that the walk took less physical exertion compared to those in the natural condition group, which can be used as an incentive to exercise.