Why some people find exercise harder than others | Emily Balcetis


Vision is the most important and prioritized sense that we have. We are constantly looking at the world around us, and quickly we identify and make sense of what it is that we see. Let’s just start with an example of that very fact. I’m going to show you
a photograph of a person, just for a second or two, and I’d like for you to identify what emotion is on his face. Ready? Here you go. Go with your gut reaction. Okay. What did you see? Well, we actually surveyed over 120 individuals, and the results were mixed. People did not agree on what emotion they saw on his face. Maybe you saw discomfort. That was the most frequent response that we received. But if you asked the person on your left, they might have said regret or skepticism, and if you asked somebody on your right, they might have said
something entirely different, like hope or empathy. So we are all looking at the very same face again. We might see something entirely different, because perception is subjective. What we think we see is actually filtered through our own mind’s eye. Of course, there are many other examples of how we see the world
through own mind’s eye. I’m going to give you just a few. So dieters, for instance, see apples as larger than people who are not counting calories. Softball players see the ball as smaller if they’ve just come out of a slump, compared to people who
had a hot night at the plate. And actually, our political beliefs also can affect the way we see other people, including politicians. So my research team and I
decided to test this question. In 2008, Barack Obama
was running for president for the very first time, and we surveyed hundreds of Americans one month before the election. What we found in this survey was that some people, some Americans, think photographs like these best reflect how Obama really looks. Of these people, 75 percent voted for Obama in the actual election. Other people, though,
thought photographs like these best reflect how Obama really looks. 89 percent of these people voted for McCain. We presented many photographs of Obama one at a time, so people did not realize
that what we were changing from one photograph to the next was whether we had artificially lightened or darkened his skin tone. So how is that possible? How could it be that
when I look at a person, an object, or an event, I see something very different than somebody else does? Well, the reasons are many, but one reason requires that we understand a little bit more about how our eyes work. So vision scientists know that the amount of information that we can see at any given point in time, what we can focus on,
is actually relatively small. What we can see with great sharpness and clarity and accuracy is the equivalent of the surface area of our thumb on our outstretched arm. Everything else around that is blurry, rendering much of what is presented to our eyes as ambiguous. But we have to clarify and make sense of what it is that we see, and it’s our mind that
helps us fill in that gap. As a result, perception
is a subjective experience, and that’s how we end up seeing through our own mind’s eye. So, I’m a social psychologist, and it’s questions like these that really intrigue me. I am fascinated by those times when people do not see eye to eye. Why is it that somebody might literally see the glass as half full, and somebody literally sees it as half empty? What is it about what one person
is thinking and feeling that leads them to see the world in an entirely different way? And does that even matter? So to begin to tackle these questions, my research team and I
decided to delve deeply into an issue that has received international attention: our health and fitness. Across the world, people are struggling
to manage their weight, and there is a variety of strategies that we have to help us
keep the pounds off. For instance, we set
the best of intentions to exercise after the holidays, but actually, the majority of Americans find that their New Year’s resolutions are broken by Valentine’s Day. We talk to ourselves in very encouraging ways, telling ourselves this is our year to get back into shape, but that is not enough to bring us back to our ideal weight. So why? Of course, there is no simple answer, but one reason, I argue, is that our mind’s eye might work against us. Some people may literally see exercise as more difficult, and some people might literally see exercise as easier. So, as a first step
to testing these questions, we gathered objective measurements of individuals’ physical fitness. We measured the
circumference of their waist, compared to the
circumference of their hips. A higher waist-to-hip ratio is an indicator of being
less physically fit than a lower waist-to-hip ratio. After gathering these measurements, we told our participants that they would walk to a finish line while carrying extra weight in a sort of race. But before they did that, we asked them to estimate the distance to the finish line. We thought that the physical
states of their body might change how
they perceived the distance. So what did we find? Well, waist-to-hip ratio predicted perceptions of distance. People who were out of shape and unfit actually saw the distance
to the finish line as significantly greater than people who were in better shape. People’s states of their own body changed how they
perceived the environment. But so too can our mind. In fact, our bodies and our minds work in tandem to change how we see the world around us. That led us to think that maybe people with strong motivations and strong goals to exercise might actually see
the finish line as closer than people who have weaker motivations. So to test whether motivations affect our perceptual
experiences in this way, we conducted a second study. Again, we gathered objective measurements of people’s physical fitness, measuring the circumference of their waist and the circumference of their hips, and we had them do a
few other tests of fitness. Based on feedback that we gave them, some of our participants told us they’re not motivated
to exercise any more. They felt like they already
met their fitness goals and they weren’t going
to do anything else. These people were not motivated. Other people, though,
based on our feedback, told us they were highly
motivated to exercise. They had a strong goal
to make it to the finish line. But again, before we had them
walk to the finish line, we had them estimate the distance. How far away was the finish line? And again, like the previous study, we found that waist-to-hip ratio predicted perceptions of distance. Unfit individuals saw
the distance as farther, saw the finish line as farther away, than people who were in better shape. Importantly, though, this only happened for people who were not motivated to exercise. On the other hand, people who were highly
motivated to exercise saw the distance as short. Even the most out of shape individuals saw the finish line as just as close, if not slightly closer, than people who were in better shape. So our bodies can change how far away that finish line looks, but people who had committed
to a manageable goal that they could accomplish
in the near future and who believed that they were capable of meeting that goal actually saw the exercise as easier. That led us to wonder, is there a strategy that we could use and teach people that would help change their perceptions of the distance, help them make exercise look easier? So we turned to
the vision science literature to figure out what should we do, and based on what we read,
we came up with a strategy that we called, “Keep
your eyes on the prize.” So this is not the slogan from an inspirational poster. It’s an actual directive for how to look around your environment. People that we trained in this strategy, we told them to focus
their attention on the finish line, to avoid looking around, to imagine a spotlight was shining on that goal, and that everything around it was blurry and perhaps difficult to see. We thought that this strategy would help make the exercise look easier. We compared this group to a baseline group. To this group we said, just look around the environment as you naturally would. You will notice the finish line, but you might also notice the garbage can off to the right, or the people and the
lamp post off to the left. We thought that people
who used this strategy would see the distance as farther. So what did we find? When we had them estimate the distance, was this strategy successful for changing their perceptual experience? Yes. People who kept their eyes on the prize saw the finish line as 30 percent closer than people who looked around as they naturally would. We thought this was great. We were really excited because it meant that this strategy helped make the exercise look easier, but the big question was, could this help make exercise actually better? Could it improve the quality of exercise as well? So next, we told our participants, you are going to walk to the finish line while wearing extra weight. We added weights to their ankles that amounted to 15 percent
of their body weight. We told them to lift their knees up high and walk to the finish line quickly. We designed this exercise in particular to be moderately challenging but not impossible, like most exercises that actually improve our fitness. So the big question, then: Did keeping your eyes on the prize and narrowly focusing on the finish line change their experience of the exercise? It did. People who kept their eyes on the prize told us afterward that it required 17 percent less exertion for them to do this exercise than people who looked around naturally. It changed their subjective experience of the exercise. It also changed the objective nature of their exercise. People who kept their eyes on the prize actually moved 23 percent faster than people who looked around naturally. To put that in perspective, a 23 percent increase is like trading in your
1980 Chevy Citation for a 1980 Chevrolet Corvette. We were so excited by this, because this meant that a strategy that costs nothing, that is easy for people to use, regardless of whether they’re in shape or struggling to get there, had a big effect. Keeping your eyes on the prize made the exercise look and feel easier even when people were working harder because they were moving faster. Now, I know there’s more to good health than walking a little bit faster, but keeping your eyes on the prize might be one additional strategy that you can use to help promote a healthy lifestyle. If you’re not convinced yet that we all see the world
through our own mind’s eye, let me leave you with one final example. Here’s a photograph of a beautiful
street in Stockholm, with two cars. The car in the back looks much larger than the car in the front. However, in reality, these cars are the same size, but that’s not how we see it. So does this mean that our eyes have gone haywire and that our brains are a mess? No, it doesn’t mean that at all. It’s just how our eyes work. We might see the world in a different way, and sometimes that might not line up with reality, but it doesn’t mean
that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. We all see the world
through our mind’s eye, but we can teach ourselves
to see it differently. So I can think of days that have gone horribly wrong for me. I’m fed up, I’m grumpy, I’m tired, and I’m so behind, and there’s a big black cloud hanging over my head, and on days like these, it looks like everyone around me is down in the dumps too. My colleague at work looks annoyed when I ask for an extension on a deadline, and my friend looks frustrated when I show up late for lunch
because a meeting ran long, and at the end of the day, my husband looks disappointed because I’d rather go to
bed than go to the movies. And on days like these,
when everybody looks upset and angry to me, I try to remind myself that there
are other ways of seeing them. Perhaps my colleague was confused, perhaps my friend was concerned, and perhaps my husband was
feeling empathy instead. So we all see the world through our own mind’s eye, and on some days, it might look like the world is a dangerous and challenging and insurmountable place, but it doesn’t have to look
that way all the time. We can teach ourselves
to see it differently, and when we find a way to make the world look nicer and easier, it might actually become so. Thank you. (Applause)

100 thoughts on “Why some people find exercise harder than others | Emily Balcetis

  1. Conclusion without research and science… Physical activity is perceived as mor difficult by out of shape people because it is more difficult for them. Fixing a clog is a breeze to a plumber, but its a challenge to me. Logic could have saved this lady a lot of time.

  2. In her tests, the finish line was in sight. In general, that won't be the case. What does "eye on the prize" mean in that case? In my experience, the goal can be too daunting if it is a long way away, and it's better to focus on what you are doing in the moment.

  3. While I agree completely with the premise presented here and find the information helpful, this study is terribly flawed.  One cannot assume that the talent of measuring distance has any direct relation to a person's fitness. Rather it is the product of prior experience or as I stated, a talent.  For example, many fit people know the exact distance of a run, a throw or a target because that has been their goal of practice for extended periods of time.  Imagine several sports if you will; a football field, a swimming pool, basketball court, tennis court, shooting range, track, bicycle race etc., all distanced, all measured. A basketball player can tell you how far to the hoop, not because he is fit but because of his experience.  His fitness is the product of such practice. Yet you can also find a well trained marksman,  20+ lbs over weight, that can accurately tell you most distances not because of his fitness level but rather because of his shooting experiences on a distance marked course.  Simply, being over weight does not mean a person is a poor judge of distance and most fit individuals will have had some prior athletic experiences to have helped train them on judging distance.  Likewise I have met runners that by nature are poor judge of distance and after years of running still cannot tell you how far something is. Therefore this study needs a different model to prove the importance of perception.  I personally do not see exercise as a hurdle according to distance but something much more emotional.  I seriously dislike exercising alone yet I am compliant to a fault in exercising with a friend, sometimes way over stepping my limits just to have the company. 

  4. She does make quite a few points to which i agree with, but there was only one issue i had throughout her presentation: the control. There was lack of a control group for each experiment her team tested, which from a scientific perspective, means it can be invalid. If she had a third group that was told nothing, maybe the results could've been more satisfying. Other than that, i completely agree with how much power our minds can have on achieving goals.

  5. Strange, for me focussing on 'the finish' makes it harder. When I don't pay much attention to my walking or workout it is actually easier for me o.O
    If I focus on a 'finish' then I constantly get reminded how much I still have to do xD

  6. I swear TedTalks is the only place on youtube to find intelligent conversation in a comment section. Grats yall

  7. I usually don't dislike videos, let alone ted talks, but this is garbage.

    So much causation associated with correlation in data; my expression? See 8:21

  8. I understand her idea of setting motivation.but I am constantly so stressed out so its hard for me to even set my mind to motivate.still I have to do exercise because I am fat:/ And I don't have friends too.yeah she seems a very beautiful with good mood,that's all I got to see from this talk.

  9. I can see how the "eyes on the prize" strategy works for running exercises, but what about push ups or squats–endurance workouts where there's no finish line to focus on? I tend to do those more often because of martial arts, and it would be great to focus on something that can make exercising a whole lot easier.

  10. I'm still trying to figure out how to motivate my friends and family to get more active. It's more complicated than simply focussing on the "finish line". It could be a time perception thing – some people don't think they can find time to exercise. Could be a perception of importance – they don't see exercise has high priority in their life. There could still be a barrier between the mental and the physical, where mentally you want to, but you just can't physically bring yourself around to do it. So many factors!

  11. this isn't news to anyone who has had experience getting used to a distance, whether swimming, running, etc. at first you start out it seems so far – it's called perceived effort. then the more you cover it (the more fit you become) you say to yourself 'I used to think that was so short!'

  12. This experiment was extremely interesting to me. I found it very fascinating how much it emphasized how powerful the mind can be. I believe these experiments are a breakthrough when it comes to perceiving exercise with a more positive mindset. If this woman can get this information to large amounts of people, I think that it could truly change the way some people live their lives. The thought of exercising is daunting, especially after a long day; however, if by simply focusing on finishing one can make the task seem easier, I think that is motivation in itself. This could be be an extremely positive cycle. This motivation to exercise from focusing on the finish can make the task seem easier, giving the person more motivation to exercise. Her studies showed that people who are motivated also perceive the workout as easier. This motivation to exercise will only result in a higher level of physical fitness, which according to her studies, will only make the task of exercising feel even easier. I truly believe that this mindset could change a lot of health problems in the United States. Exercise is a great way to stay healthy and lower one's risks for chronic diseases. With her studies, she could change society's view on exercise and possibly prevent some of these diseases which are common causes of death for many people.

  13. Shows how dumb pple often are : black, white, yellow or brown I only care of the potential integrity and usefulness of a polishitian.

  14. While I do perform physically demanding labor at work, I find a GYM or exercise in general to be very boring. This was not that great of a TED talk.

  15. after watching 4 minutes if this i gave up, she still hasn't even begun the titled topic and rather waffles on. Maybe a great researcher but awful speaker

  16. I'm sorry, but this all seems like a big batch of bullshit. "Seems 17% easier"… the graphs… I understand what she was trying to prove: Focusing on a goal affects perception, and perception affects success, etc… but didn't we all know this already? I've seen it on posters and stuff, ones with mountains and nature. The results of the experiments are not conclusive. The data is subjective. Seems like a huge waste of time and resources. Nothing useful here, except maybe next time I get on a treadmill I will be staring at a dot on the wall the size of my thumbprint.

  17. So… the "darker" Obama is, the more people want to vote for the white guy? Nice… totally not a racial thing then, huh?

  18. I actually found the opposite, when I run if i focus on the one spot i want to get to, i always stop sooner than if i dont force myself to focus on that spot….. interesting

  19. I think more than the actual title of the talk, the talk is about recognising that everything we perceive has a daily fluctuating cognitive bias to it, a small additional input error, that we should try to correct when using data to make decisions.

    It's tough to accept that you are reading the world slightly wrong all the time, and the amount of that slightly wrong changes daily due to a number of parameters.

  20. Absolute bullshit. I personally used "Eyes on the Prize" as a motivational framework in my own weight loss crusade and simply ended up more depressed and demotivated than before. Exercise is a hobby and not a requirement for human health. Science should spend more time studying things that actually work like ketogenic diets.

  21. Why she had to conduct so many exercises on people? Strange. Isn't it obvious that when we have a prize or goal we are motivated towards it?

  22. The most negative people online rarely have a pic of themselves as their avi, on any website. Doesn't matter.

  23. For the Obama thing there's another TED talk about how eating lots of veg changes your skin colour to look more orange and more healthy. The darker Obama pic did look more orange rather than a darker shade of the same color and I would imagine looking more 'healthy' is seen as a negative thing in a President who should be indoors working and having meetings with little time or effort spent trying to eat healthy. There's another possible factor… The people who voted Mccain are probably less familiar with Obama's face… The first picture was actually much closer to his real skin color given the flash that illuminated the shirt and so the people who voted for him and paid attention to his talks and advertisements were more likely to recognise that, whereas the people who voted Mccain might just have not paid as much attention whenever there was a news segment or video of a rally. To be honest it seems a biased study. Not that that matters but it is kind of interesting

  24. I never was in shape, nor do I plan to get into shape anytime soon. I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror, if I had any toned or physical body.

  25. I love this video! As a consumer behaviour researcher I understand how she does the experiments for her study. The priming and baseline conditions works wonderfully. That interaction effects of one of the last series of studies really look like a huge interaction effect in the unfit condition (specially when the level of motivation is manipulated), therefore her study really showing that unfit and non motivated person would find finishing the end line (in this case exercise) as harder than the rest. It's all about our own perception, you maneuver your acts from it. The key word here is change our mindset!

  26. To exercise, I go running in my neighbourhood. When I keep thinking “you’re almost there”, I find myself getting tired faster than when I’m lost in my own thoughts and looking around.

  27. I'm not convinced it's a matter of perception that people less or more fit. I think it's all genetics. I have a hard time getting addicted to anything, but I know a lot of people in which addiction is very easy. Do I somehow perceive addiction differently? Not likely. I think some people just don't get a high from exercising like others do.

  28. Can it be ruled out whether "physically fit" parameter correlates with spacial perception because the person might be better trained at tasks involving spacial perspective, which is very frequent for most sports?

  29. TED needs to trim the 'fat' like this that is undermining their reputation & making them another kitschy self-help seminar.

  30. The most impossible task of her literally strategy is how to motivate people at the very first place. This is, unfortunately, the most difficult part of everything.

  31. Interesting. As a mountain climber, I am familiar with staying focused on the finish. As the summit comes into view it feels so close, even if it is still hours away and thousands of feet to go. Summit fever drives people to act unstoppable.

  32. I honestly believe not everyone in this fucking world is made to be 'fit' and have that body every supposedly 'fit' person kills themselve to maintain. it's often not about motivation.
    there actually exists a thing called EXERCISE ADDICTION in which a person can not manage a healthy 'normal' like y'all relationship with exercise because they have suffered from a life threatening eating disorder. so they will literally get to a point in which they'd rather die instead of skipping a workout and that is way more unhealthy than not working out at all, mentally. obviously there needs to be a balance. But to be honest
    there isn't enough precise and differentiated information to go around and tell people what they're supposed to do. stuff changes all the time and individual stories are so diverse. society and modern lifestyles have completely thrown out of balance the things that are necessary for a healthy individual to thrive, like a purposeful approach to exercise and anybody who doesn't participate in the neuroticism is considered lazy. what may be healthy for someone who should thank God everyday they don't even know what an eating disorder is, is unfortunately not good for someone who's been in the throes of anorexia and exercise addiction. nobody talks about this though. only going ahead and judging.
    as i said, not enough info. often especially among these little ted people.

  33. I am not going to lie nor apologize nor feel bad: physical exercise is simply not for me.
    There exist a billion things more important for me to do.

  34. Obviously someone who is less fit will see distances as farther for themselves… Because it won't be as easy for them with less fitness.

  35. The actual experiment portion feels very sketchy. For instance, I’m really bad at giving visual distance estimates. How did they even determine people thought the finish line was __%further?? That “fact” alone renders this kinda useless.

  36. Waist to hip ratio is not a measure of physical fitness by any means. Otherwise why are athletes not pear shaped? Waist to hip ratio has been linked to risks of certain medical conditions such as heart disease. It does not suggest that someone with narrow hips cant run!!

  37. Wait so only people who voted from him thought he looked better white. That “white” made him more accurate??? This is stupid ted talk

  38. Bad science. You can't assume causality based on information given. While she claims that bodies change perception of distance, I would contend that perception of distance (supposedly perceived difficulty of the exercise), impacts activity levels and therefore fitness. I think she has it exactly wrong, and she's pushing ideas that are probably wrong.

  39. So in others words your perspective in life determines your success in achieving goals, happiness and relationships. There, I said it, it's not rocket science and it didn't take me 14 minutes to do so.

  40. The Obama thing was ridiculous. It could simply be debunked by addressing the fact that people are more familiar with candidates they vote for so they see them in their true color. Where's the Mc Cain picture results? ..exactly

  41. the basis of her argument is wrong and flawed (perception is not subjective because we have laws and units of measure), intellectuals are the stupidest people on the planet next to the religious.

  42. Emily Balcetis has a pretty good point. Our perception can be different in some cases. Fit people see the finish line in a shorter distance and unfit people see the finish line in a longer distance. It's all about perspective.

  43. listen..

    if u want to get Fit , you need to exercise and control your diet.

    if u want to get Muscular , you need to push those exercises to next level each week whenever you hit the gym.. Of course same goes to the diet, it becomes even stricter..

    if u want to get that top Finesse Bodybuilder Physiques , you need to commit and give all your mind and energy into working out intensely. And yes, say bye2 to Cokes and your stupid Cheetos.. Say hi to eggs and chicken breast with no salt on it cuz u need to maintain 11% BF percentage to have those ripped tight skin looks.

    no pain no gain.. same goes to, no work no money.. what's important is.. do you want to get that body physique? or are you fine with your obese beer belly bods?

  44. That's because the guy has mixed emotions on face. I think it's called dudewtflol or something XD . Like he just heard about something horrible, outlandish and amusing at the same time.

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