Years ago, we figured out that listening to music, watching TV, or both provided a distraction or dissociation from the discomfort that comes along with exercise. For many people the discomfort is not enjoyable, and can be a big deterrant to exercising.
Research tells us that we all respond differently to the physical side of exercise (e.g. fatigue, muscle discomfort, increased heart rate, breathing fast, and sweating). Some respond negatively, especially those who do not have particularly strong beliefs in their exercise abilities2 – which is a lot of people.
So, being able to get a release from the discomfort encourages greater exercise adherence. Accordingly, research does support the effectiveness of having music and TV as a distraction in reducing dropout from exercise in adults.1
What about Smartphones?
If you have walked through any gym lately, you have noticed that the new distraction is the smartphone. However, TODAY Health recently published an article on the '5 habits that are messing up your workout', which highlights that smartphone use could be sacrificing your exercise results. They mention a new, very cool study that looked at the use of smartphones during a 30-minute treadmill walk.3
Participants did the same treadmill walk on 4 different days. In a randomized order, they did the walk while (1) texting on smartphone, (2) talking on smartphone, (3) listening to music, or (4) having no distraction (control). They could select their own walking speed during each condition, which was a main outcome of interest. Here is a quick summary of what they found.
As you can see, there were slight differences in the speed that was self-selected. Texting and talking were slightly lower than having no distraction at all (0.3 mph difference), while listening to music allowed participants to walk a bit faster at 3.4 mph. In the end, all intensities met physical activity guidelines for moderate-intensity (3-6 METs), which is our goal for physical activity and health.
Interestingly, even though the participants (college students who were most likely active) walked faster with music, they enjoyed it more than the other conditions (7.5 out of 10, with 10 = like it very much). They liked walking while texting a scripted conversation and talking on their phone more than having to walk with no distraction whatsoever.
If you are wanting to walk at a faster speed and higher intensity, talking or texting on your smartphone could be a distraction – slightly limiting the amount of effort you can put forth. I could see how hard it would be to jog while texting, thus this claim is plausible. There is a catch.
If you are just wanting to walk at a moderate-intensity, then it might not matter, and might actually increase perceptions of 'liking' the exercise time.
- Research tells us that distraction from the discomfort and negative feelings commonly associated with exercise can actually help new exercisers and others who are less confident in their exercise abilities stick with exercise longer, thus reducing the risk of dropping out.
- Also, these media articles presume that everyone wants and needs to exercise at a high intensity. This is not true. Yes, any technology could be a possible distraction at higher intensity, and could hinder performance. But, the distraction could really help those who need a moderate-intensity walk (~2.5-3.0 mph; 3-6 METs) to meet their daily physical activity goals for health.
Take Janet, who does not particularly enjoy walking on the treadmill at her gym. To be honest, it is boring and not particularly pleasant. She has discovered, however, that she can watch TV, read a book, catch up with her Aunt Ida on the phone, and even text with her friends during her 60-minute walk. Now, the walk is not so bad, and at times, it is even enjoyable. Yes, the highlighted research says that she might walk at 2.8 mph, instead of 3.1 mph with no distraction, but could that 0.3 mph sacrifice be worth it if Janet enjoys it more and subsequently maintains her active lifestyle?
- Annesi, J. J. (2001). Effects of music, television, and a combination entertainment system on distraction, exercise adherence, and physical output in adults. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 33(3), 193-202.
- McAuley, E., Talbot, H. M., & Martinez, S. (1999). Manipulating self-efficacy in the exercise environment in women: Influences on affective responses. Health Psychology, 18(3), 288-294.
- Rebold, M. J., Lepp, A., Sanders, G. J., & Barkley, J. E. (2015). The Impact of Cell Phone Use on the Intensity and Liking of a Bout of Treadmill Exercise. PLOS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0125029