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Slow motion: Exercise changes our perception of time

Ever felt like that 30-minute workout dragged on like an agonizingly slow scene in a bad movie? It’s not your imagination. Turns out, exercise can warp your sense of time. A new study adds an exciting twist to the story.

Exercise and time perception

A recent study found that our internal sense of time stretches out or slows down for many individuals during exercise. This feeling is more pronounced during exercise than when we’re at rest, either before or after a workout.

The study is innovative because it looks specifically at how time perception changes during the kind of intense, self-regulated exercise that mimics real-life athletic competition. Previous research often used fixed-intensity exercise protocols, which weren’t as reflective of the dynamic nature of sports or competitive workouts. This makes the findings more applicable to those situations.

Einstein was right – Time is relative

Albert Einstein was a brilliant physicist who revolutionized our understanding of time and space. His theory of relativity suggests that the passage of time isn’t absolute, but instead depends on the observer’s frame of reference and the influence of gravity.

Einstein’s thought experiment illustrated the subjective nature of time. A moment can seem to last forever in unpleasant situations, while time seems to rush by when we’re engaged in enjoyable experiences.

This workout study demonstrates that physical exertion can distort our perception of time, making it feel slower than usual.

How does exercise change the time speed?

Scientists are still figuring out the exact details of how several factors interact to distort time perception during exercise. It’s a complex question with no simple answer yet. They propose the following theories:

Theory 1: The brain gets overloaded

During exercise, your brain receives a massive surge of information from your body. That means a lot to process for your brain’s attention and control centers.

Your brain has to monitor your breathing rate, adjust your heart rate, coordinate complex muscle movements, and manage any feelings of pain or fatigue. All this effort could divert your brain’s resources away from its usual time-tracking mechanisms.

Theory 2: It’s all about the chemicals

Physical exertion triggers significant changes in your body’s chemistry. A rush of hormones and neurotransmitters floods your system.

These are the brain’s chemical messengers. Exercise increases the release of neurotransmitters like dopamine, endorphins, and adrenaline, which impact mood, arousal, and focus.

This change in brain chemistry could also affect areas related to our perception of time. It’s like those chemicals change the “clock speed” of how your brain is operating, which could make time feel like it’s moving faster or slower.

Does competition affect time perception in exercise?

The study distinguishes itself by investigating a crucial question: Does the presence of competition alter how we perceive time during exercise? Previous research hadn’t fully explored this aspect of exercise psychology.

To test this, the researchers recruited a group of moderately to highly active individuals. Participants engaged in cycling trials on specialized stationary bikes designed to simulate a competitive race environment. The trials varied in condition: some were solo rides, while others involved either a non-responsive virtual competitor or a virtual opponent who actively changed pace throughout the race.

Surprisingly, the findings showed that the presence of virtual competitors had little to no impact on the participants’ perception of time. This suggests that the primary factor influencing time distortion is the act of physical exertion itself, rather than the psychological pressure or excitement of a competitive setting.

“The take home message for this study is that our perception of time is indeed impacted by exercise,” said study author Andrew Mark Edwards, a professor and Head of School for Psychology & Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University.

“This could be useful information in terms of accurately pacing sport and exercise activities such as devising strategies to mitigate periods where time appears to drag and can be demotivating.”

What does this mean for daily workouts?

Most people who exercise regularly have experienced those moments where time seems to crawl, especially during challenging parts of a workout. This feeling of time slowing down can be incredibly demotivating and make it tempting to cut a workout short.

The key findings of this study could pave the way for new strategies to help both athletes and everyday gym-goers overcome this mental hurdle. The goal is to develop strategies specifically designed to combat those periods where our perception of time becomes distorted, making exercise feel less enjoyable and harder to sustain.

Intuitively, you might assume that the harder a workout feels, the more time would seem to drag. However, this study offers a surprising insight: there doesn’t appear to be a direct relationship between your subjective rating of exertion (how intensely you’re working out) and how much time seems to slow down. This means that even during less intense periods of exercise, your perception of time can still become warped.

Future directions

“This was a study of recreationally active participants in only one mode of exercise so the results ought to be considered in the context of that activity/population,” Edwards explained. “More work is required to see if this is widely applicable.” The team will explore this further with different types of athletes and exercise.

Beyond the workout world, this research might even be useful when folks are using exercise as therapy. “The main strands of the work are to see how we can motivate people to engage with exercise and avoid/mitigate negative associations with time appearing to move slowly,” said Edwards.

Sweat sessions bend your mind in more ways than one. If your workouts feel tortuously long sometimes, you’re not alone. Hopefully, this research will help us come up with ways to make exercise more enjoyable.

The study is published in the journal Brain and Behavior.


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