You’ve probably encountered them at East Coast Park or in the gym (or you’re guilty of the behaviour yourself): Exercisers plodding along like zombies on the pavement or taking up the treadmill with equally-dead eyes glued to their handphone screens.
Many a times, you have to quicken your pace to overtake them or look for another cardio machine in a huff. All the while thinking: Why can’t these people just put down their mobile devices for a while and focus on their workout?
Besides the inconvenience these individuals create for others, there’s also the question: Can you really get your effort’s worth if you’re multi-tasking with your gadget?
If you’re guilty of drowning out your own grunts during exercise with loud music, you’d know that such distractions can have their merits, said Dr Wang Mingchang, a consultant with National University Hospital’s Division of Sports Medicine & Surgery.
“Being distracted during aerobic exercise (such as running on a treadmill or cycling on a stationary bike) can help alleviate the monotony, and make it easier for one to complete the exercise session.”
And who can dismiss the booming bass and high BPM (beats per minute) that spur one on to cycle or run faster? In fact, Professor Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University, one of the world's leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, noted that you could think of music as "a type of legal performance-enhancing drug".
It is for those reasons that you’d find disco-like lighting and sound systems in some workout studios. Spin classes and HIIT sessions are examples, and the intentions are similar to what a new study from Italy found: That is, high tempo music can make workouts seem less challenging.
Furthermore, music can also improve your mood by increasing serotonin levels, which makes the exercise feel better, according to the study.
The same goes for strength-training exercises, said Dr Wang. A great workout soundtrack can take your mind off the fatigue and soreness, and let you crank out additional repetitions – all of which can translate to greater strength gains, he said.
SHOULD WE LET OURSELVES GET DISTRACTED DURING EXERCISE?
However, using digital distractions during exercise can be a double-edged sword, said Dr Wang. While watching Ninja Warrior videos or listening to your Spotify playlist can motivate you to push yourself harder, multi-tasking in this way can also lead to injuries.
This is especially so when it comes to exercises that require form and technique such as lifting weights and performing calisthenics. When you’re focusing more on your friend’s Facebook post than your own exercise posture, it may result in injuries of the joints, muscle and tendons, said Dr Wang.
“Mindless exercise typically yields sub-optimal gains in fitness,” said Jill Henderzahs-Mason, a wellness physical therapist with the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program, via email. “It is very likely that exercising while distracted may result in injuries due to a poor understanding of how one’s body is moving in space, or due to inappropriate muscle engagement, including the core.”
Think about the effects of distracted driving, or even how well you remember conversations when you’re only half paying attention, said Henderzahs-Mason. “Distracted exercise may produce similar effects-injury or only a sub-par effort.”
Injuries are also a possibility if you’re new to the advance movements, said senior lecturer Teresa Shiu at Republic Polytechnic’s Diploma in Health Management & Promotion. Such movements require more coordination and balance, and mental focus is even more critical to execute them accurately and safely, she said.
Shiu added: “If the goal of the workout is to acquire sports skills, such as weight lifting or dance moves, mental focus and engagement are essential to move in good form and to learn new techniques”.
BUT I NEED THE DISTRACTION TO GET THROUGH MY SESSION!
Hang on, there isn’t much to concentrate on if you’re just jogging on the treadmill or walking in the park, you say. Does it hurt to catch up on K-drama or chat with a friend on the phone while on the go then? After all, you could do with the distraction to take your mind off the panting and sweating.
Go ahead if you’re performing simple, repetitive movements on flat paths in the park, or on the treadmill, cross-trainer or elliptical machine as these actions are “relatively safe”, said Shiu. “But be careful not to be too distracted and slow down your walk too much, which will reduce the health benefit of the walk,” she said.
Still, don’t expect to achieve high levels of fitness gains from exercising in such a distracted manner, said Henderzahs-Mason. You could clock your day’s quota of activity this way but train for a marathon you will not.
And here’s the thing, too: If you can multi-task on your mobile device while exercising, you can certainly up the ante. A good reason to push yourself harder: You lose more weight. “While some movement is better than no movement at all, it would be more efficient to improve cardiovascular fitness, and manage body weight by walking at a moderate intensity level,” said Shiu.
The extra sweating also confers health benefits. “The higher the intensity of the aerobic exercise, the greater the physiological benefits such as improvements in heart and lung function, and blood pressure control,” said Dr Wang.
So what is the intensity level to exercise at? If you have the tendency to talk to your workout buddy while cycling or jogging, that’s a good way to gauge, said Shiu. “In general, if you’re doing a moderate-intensity activity, you can still talk but not sing.”