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Exercising Warps Our Perception of Time

Two women cycling.
Credit: Coen van de Broek / Unsplash.
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Hardcore Madonna fans might remember her smash hit from the noughties, “Hung Up”, in which the lyrics “time goes by, so slowly” repeat over and over again. I think about those lyrics often when I’m running and the minutes seem to drag by. An hour of relaxation seems to pass by so quickly compared to an hour pounding the pavements.

Now, experimental research has – for the first time – demonstrated that this is a shared phenomenon.

A collaborative team of researchers from Canterbury Christ Church University, the University of Groningen and Northumbria University have published a study in Brain and Behavior demonstrating that individuals experience time as moving slower while exercising, compared to when they are resting or have just finished exercising.

Perceived time runs “slow” compared to chronological time during exercise

How we perceive the passage of time while exercising could impact our physical performance, but to date, little experimental work has been conducted to explore this concept.

The team recruited 33 active adults – 16 females and 17 males – to complete a standardized time perception task prior to, during and after completing 4 km cycling trials. Though the participants self-reported as highly active individuals, none of them stated that cycling was their “sport of choice”.

3D software was adopted to create a visual virtual environment that reflected three conditions: a solo time trial, a time trial with an opponent and a time trial featuring an opponent with strict instructions to complete the trial ahead of the opponent.

In the time perception tasks, participants were verbally told to “start” and asked to state when they believed 30- or 60-second periods of time had passed. The task was performed 30 seconds before exercise, then at either 500 m, 1500 m or 2500 m into the trial and 2 minutes after completing the trial.

“Exercise trials revealed that time was perceived to run ‘slow’ compared to chronological time during exercise compared to resting and post-exercise measurements,” the researchers said. This slower perception of time was not affected by the presence of virtual competitors, or instructions to complete the race before the virtual competitors.

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“Our findings have important implications for healthy exercise choices, enjoyment levels and also for how we use this information to optimize performance,” said Professor Andrew Edwards, head of the School for Psychology and Life Sciences, faculty director of Research and Enterprise at Canterbury Christ Church University and co-lead author of the study.

"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,” Edwards added.

The findings of this study are limited in their generalizability, a limitation the team acknowledges: “While the participants weren't professional cyclists, they were in good physical shape, which isn't true of everybody. The sample size of 33 people offers 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,” Edwards said.

Consequently, their next steps are to conduct further experiments in wider groups of people and assess the possible impact of time perception on health and exercise performance.

Reference: Edwards AM, Menting SGP, Elferink-Gemser MT, Hettinga FJ. The perception of time is slowed in response to exercise, an effect not further compounded by competitors: behavioral implications for exercise and health. Brain Behav. 2024;14(4):e3471. doi: 10.1002/brb3.3471

This article is a rework of a press release issued by Canterbury Christ Church University. Material has been edited for length and content.