What’s A Good Reaction Time? + 3 Ways To Improve Yours 

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Even competitive athletes don’t often think about measuring reaction time or considering whether they have “good reaction time,“ “average reaction time,“ or “poor reaction time.“ 

To that end, what is a good reaction time? Does the average reaction time change based on age or sex? 

In this guide to average reaction time standards and norms, we will discuss what reaction time means, how to test it, factors that affect a good reaction time, and the average response time for men and women by age.

Let’s jump in!

A person testing their reaction time.

What Is Reaction Time?

Reaction time (RT) essentially refers to the amount of time it takes between the occurrence of a stimulus and your body‘s reaction to it.

There are different types of reaction times, depending on the stimulus.

For example, visual reaction time refers to how quickly you can respond to a visual stimulus, such as a flashing light, whereas auditory reaction time refers to how quickly you can refer to a sound-based stimulus, such as a whistle or a beep.

Simple reaction time requires little decision-making. You might see a light flash on a screen and be told to click.

Choice reaction time is more complex and involves making a decision based on a situation. Strategy is involved.

For example, if you’re playing basketball and someone is dribbling down the court, you can try to anticipate the player’s direction and respond with your own body to block or defend based on what you think will happen.

Good reaction time has implications for both physical fitness and sports performance, as well as everyday activities such as driving, gamers playing video games, or preventing injuries around the house with things like touching a hot stove.

The word reaction and a stopwatch.

How Does Reaction Time Work?

Reaction time is controlled by your central nervous system, which is the division of the nervous system that includes the brain and spinal cord.

The other division of the nervous system is the peripheral nervous system, which includes all of the nerves that extend throughout the body from the brain or spinal cord.

There are over 100 billion neurons in the nervous system. Note that neurons are nerve cells. These neurons receive various sensory inputs from afferent nerves.

Afferent nerves are those that travel from sensory receptors in the periphery of the body to the brain or spinal cord carrying sensory information. For example, afferent nerves in your fingers receive touch and pressure information and send it to your brain.

Afferent nerves in your eyes receive visual cues and send them to your brain.

Therefore, sensory receptors in all of the peripheral tissues, as well as special sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, etc.), transmit information to the brain or spinal cord, where these signals are interpreted by the brain.

Then, the brain responds in a physical and/or mental response, sending a signal back through neurons called efferent neurons.

A person touching a stove.

For example, imagine that you touch a hot stove.

Pain and heat sensors in your fingers, known as nociceptors and thermoreceptors, respectively, send signals to the brain about the painful temperature of the burning stove.

The brain receives this signal from the afferent neurons, processes it, and then sends a motor signal via efferent neurons back to the arm, hand, and fingers to quickly retract your hand to prevent further burning.

The time that it takes between experiencing the hot burner on your fingers and the retraction of your hand from the burner would be your reaction time. In this situation, a fast reaction time will help prevent tissue damage.

The normal reaction time for most situations is usually between 150 and 300 milliseconds, which is just a fraction of a second.

When we discuss what is considered a good reaction time or the average reaction time, it’s important to remember that there is a difference between physical and mental or cognitive reaction time.

Physical reaction time refers to how quickly you can respond physically to a stimulus, which in the above scenario would be how quickly you can remove your hand from the burner after experiencing the hot sensation (movement time).

A boxer giving a punch.

Mental reaction time is how quickly you can perceive and process a stimulus.

Both physical and mental reaction time generally need to occur in any situation in which you are reacting to something.

However, the mental reaction time is the actual processing and determining the solution to the stimulus, and the physical reaction time is the physical manifestation of how you react.

One final note is that people often conflate reaction time with reflexes.

Reflexes are innate programming patterns that occur as a response to something. Reflexes generally do not need to travel all the way up to the brain but rather are controlled through spinal cord nerves.

For example, when a doctor hits your patella tendon below your kneecap with a hammer, your shin automatically jerks forward without you thinking about it.

There is no mental processing here, which distinguishes a reflex from reaction time.

A person holding a ruler.

How Do You Measure Your Reaction Time?

You can test reaction time in various ways, depending on whether you are interested in your visual or auditory reaction time.

One of the most common reaction time tests is the ruler test. This test involves dropping a ruler through your fingers and trying to catch it as quickly as possible.

Here is how to perform the ruler test for reaction time testing:

There are also online tools to test your reaction time by seeing how quickly you can click and respond to something on your computer screen.

Note that with these online reaction time tests, your computer processing speed can impact your reaction time test score.

The Ruler Test: Test Your Reaction Time

  1. Have someone hold a ruler by pinching the very top of the ruler.
  2. Put your thumb and index finger at the very bottom of the ruler as if you were going to grasp it in between your fingers, but do not allow your fingers to touch the ruler. There needs to be space like an open channel.
  3. Have the person holding the ruler let go of the ruler.
  4. As soon as possible, catch the ruler between your thumb and index finger by squeezing them together as the ruler slides down between your fingers with gravity towards the floor.
  5. Measure the distance that the ruler dropped by noting the distance between the bottom of the ruler and where you caught the ruler.

You can interpret your reaction time test scores from the ruler reaction time test here. The shorter the distance, the faster your reaction time.

A person playing a video game.

What’s A Good Reaction Time? Average Reaction Times By Age, Activity Level, and Cognitive Health

Most studies suggest that the average human reaction time is between 200 and 300 milliseconds.

A good human reaction time, therefore, is faster than 200 ms, or as close to 200 ms as possible.

There are 1000 ms in a second, so 200 ms is 1/5 of a second, and 300 ms is a little faster than 1/3 of a second.

Some studies suggest that human reaction times are getting longer rather than shorter, which is somewhat interesting since we tend to see most physical parameters improving over time, such as speed, vertical jump height, and maximum power output or strength.1IRWIN W. SILVERMAN. (2010). Simple reaction time: It is not what it used to be. The American Journal of Psychology123(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.5406/amerjpsyc.123.1.0039

‌Various factors can impact a good reaction time.

The main factors that will influence how fast your reaction time is include the following: 

A person kicking a soccer ball.

#1: Age

Like many physical and cognitive skills, reaction time tends to increase with age, meaning that our reaction times get slower as we get older.2Tun, P. A., & Lachman, M. E. (2008). Age differences in reaction time and attention in a national telephone sample of adults: Education, sex, and task complexity matter. Developmental Psychology44(5), 1421–1429. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012845

‌This is because the mental processing of a stimulus will take longer, and the physical response and reaction speed can also take longer.

Studies suggest there is a gradual loss of neurons in the brain with age that can impact the speed with which signals are processed, particularly with complex tasks.

#2: Sex

Males may have a faster average reaction time than females.3Jain, A., Bansal, R., Kumar, A., & Singh, K. (2015). A Comparative Study of Visual and Auditory Reaction Times on the Basis of Gender and Physical Activity Levels of Medical First Year Students. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research5(2), 124. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-516x.157168

#3: Sleep

Fatigue can increase reaction time because the brain cannot process signals as quickly, and coordination can be impaired.

#4: Hydration Status

Dehydration can affect reaction time bu increasing it.4WITTBRODT, M. T., & MILLARD-STAFFORD, M. (2018). Dehydration Impairs Cognitive Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise50(11), 2360–2368. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001682

A person drinking a cup of coffee.

#5: Caffeine

Caffeine may improve reaction time by improving alertness and responsiveness.

#6: Alcohol 

Alcohol can cause a slower reaction times, which is one reason why drunk driving is so dangerous.5Hernández, O. H., Vogel-Sprott, M., & Ke-Aznar, V. I. (2007). Alcohol impairs the cognitive component of reaction time to an omitted stimulus: a replication and an extension. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs68(2), 276–281. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.2007.68.276

#7: Fitness 

Regular exercise training can improve reaction time.6Jain, A., Bansal, R., Kumar, A., & Singh, K. (2015). A Comparative Study of Visual and Auditory Reaction Times on the Basis of Gender and Physical Activity Levels of Medical First Year Students. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research5(2), 124. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-516x.157168

Can You Improve Your Reaction Time?

It is possible to improve your reaction time with consistent training and practice.

However, like most physical characteristics of sports performance, there’s probably a cap on the fastest human reaction time.

As you approach the best reaction time possible or the fastest reaction time to a visual or auditory stimulus, it will be quite challenging, if not impossible, to decrease your reaction time.

Here are some tips for how to get a faster reaction time:

A person stretching.

#1: Practice 

Like any physical skill, studies suggest that the best way to improve reaction time is simply by practicing.

Repetition with a particular stimulus will help you get better at interpreting and responding quickly, particularly when it involves visual reaction time, such as with video game playing.7(2014). http://medind.nic.in/jaw/t14/i2/jawt14i2p119.pdf

Researchers postulate that practicing through repetition and exposing yourself to different scenarios with visual reaction time training will help you create motor programs and habits so that you can respond quickly and decrease your reaction time to stimuli that you have become familiar with.8Wong, A. L., Goldsmith, J., Forrence, A. D., Haith, A. M., & Krakauer, J. W. (2017). Reaction times can reflect habits rather than computations. ELife6. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.28075

Essentially, practice helps make visual reaction time more automatic by removing some of the mental reaction time component that goes into processing the information from the visual stimuli.

Reaction time training and practice are especially beneficial for choice reaction time scenarios.

#2: Warm Up

For reaction time in sports performance, warming up your muscles with a thorough aerobic warm-up and dynamic stretching can help decrease the physical reaction time.

Enhanced circulation will increase mobility and tissue compliance, helping your body move more smoothly and quickly.

#3: Do CNS Activation Exercises

Central nervous system activation exercises, also known as a CNS warm-up or CNS training, before an athletic event or workout can help prep your central nervous system to be awake, alert, and firing on all cylinders.

This can help improve reaction time by decreasing the mental processing component of your reaction time performance.

You can learn more about CNS activation exercises before workouts here.

What's A Good Reaction Time? + 3 Ways To Improve Yours  1

References

  • 1
    IRWIN W. SILVERMAN. (2010). Simple reaction time: It is not what it used to be. The American Journal of Psychology123(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.5406/amerjpsyc.123.1.0039
  • 2
    Tun, P. A., & Lachman, M. E. (2008). Age differences in reaction time and attention in a national telephone sample of adults: Education, sex, and task complexity matter. Developmental Psychology44(5), 1421–1429. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0012845
  • 3
    Jain, A., Bansal, R., Kumar, A., & Singh, K. (2015). A Comparative Study of Visual and Auditory Reaction Times on the Basis of Gender and Physical Activity Levels of Medical First Year Students. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research5(2), 124. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-516x.157168
  • 4
    WITTBRODT, M. T., & MILLARD-STAFFORD, M. (2018). Dehydration Impairs Cognitive Performance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise50(11), 2360–2368. https://doi.org/10.1249/mss.0000000000001682
  • 5
    Hernández, O. H., Vogel-Sprott, M., & Ke-Aznar, V. I. (2007). Alcohol impairs the cognitive component of reaction time to an omitted stimulus: a replication and an extension. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs68(2), 276–281. https://doi.org/10.15288/jsad.2007.68.276
  • 6
    Jain, A., Bansal, R., Kumar, A., & Singh, K. (2015). A Comparative Study of Visual and Auditory Reaction Times on the Basis of Gender and Physical Activity Levels of Medical First Year Students. International Journal of Applied and Basic Medical Research5(2), 124. https://doi.org/10.4103/2229-516x.157168
  • 7
  • 8
    Wong, A. L., Goldsmith, J., Forrence, A. D., Haith, A. M., & Krakauer, J. W. (2017). Reaction times can reflect habits rather than computations. ELife6. https://doi.org/10.7554/elife.28075
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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