Many of us look to distractions when we're pushing ourselves to get those reps in at the gym or take a jog around the park. Whether it's a hype-up playlist, Real Housewives, Rachel Maddow, or something marathonable on Netflix, it's popular to keep yourself entertained with something pleasurable while you're sweating. But how does music actually affect you when you work out, or any other form of distraction?
Using entertainment as distraction during your workout is different to using it as motivation. Having a sitcom or the news on your laptop as you do squats is meant to take your mind off the pain, while a high-tempo playlist is designed to help you focus. And that makes a difference, says Caleb Backe, a personal trainer and health and wellness expert at Maple Holistics. He tells Bustle that whether you benefit from external stimuli, like music, when you're working out "entirely depends on whether or not you're using it as a distraction, or merely as an accompanying, secondary activity." And whether that's a good idea or not, he says, depends on the kind of exercise you're actually performing.
Enhancing your workout with music or watching TV isn't always a great idea. "Some experts may tell you to remain aware of your situation and condition as it is unfolding," says Backe. "Being with your 'pain', they say, will help you become even more appreciative of the eventual 'gain'."
But not everybody agrees. "I am very much in favor of kind attention and mindfulness, but I know from personal experience that there are times when listening to motivational speeches, or some favorite music, or even an audiobook, can be highly beneficial," says Backe. "Not as a distraction, per se, but as a way to keep yourself moving through."
For exercises where you know what you're doing and are entering a "flow", Backe tells Bustle, it's acceptable and maybe even preferable to have something else to tune into. "When you are on a treadmill or cycling machine, you can probably afford to be "distracted," since there is a lot of muscle memory involved there, and therefore there is less chance of you going off-course," he says. But it's important to wait until these exercises are routine and you know exactly how to perform them before introducing distraction.
And when you're doing certain regimes that involve a lot of repetitive movement, like cardio, music or rhythmic stuff can actually help you do it better. "There is a tempo, a rhythm, to some exercises, and it can be helpful to forming a positive and welcomed routine," says Backe.
However, if you're new to a move, are facing the risk of injury or need to perform it exactly, having distractions should be out. "With some activities, like crossfit training or with movements which need to be extra-precise, having a distraction can be detrimental, and bring more harm than good — even if you mean it to simply accompany your session," says Backe. "Your mind is split between the actions you are performing, and what is going on around you. Sometimes you need to concentrate on what you are doing, period, and let nothing stand between you and your goals." That can sound extremely tough, but ultimately it's safer not to dilute your focus when you're liable to make mistakes.
Distractions, notes Backe, "depend on that person's individual psychology, their ability to multitask successfully, their desire to multitask, and the activity itself." But the golden rule is that if the exercise isn't rote yet or doesn't require some kind of "flow" to make it work, it's probably a good idea to stay focused and keep distractions in the background to a minimum. You can catch up on The Bachelor during some other activity.