How Does Watching TV While You Exercise Affect Your Workout?

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If you've been on any type of cardio machine, you've probably gotten distracted by something on TV and barely noticed your gait get all wonky. If you're me, you've definitely fallen off the treadmill while watching the episodes of Arrow I'd downloaded on my iPad and hoped none of your personal training clients — or worse, colleagues — saw you. But while watching TV during your workout can definitely help you keep jogging on, it might also be hurting your gains at the gym.

Of course, tuning into whatever sports game your gym is playing or secretly rejoicing when your gym's treadmill has HGTV can be excellent for distracting you from what your body is actually doing. And unless you're a very avid runner (and even if you are!), running and other machine-based forms of cardio are by nature very repetitive. You might not want to focus on your breath, your footfalls, the lactic acid slowly building up in your calves. And if you're being honest, you might not want to focus on how boring all that can get by minute 30. And it's OK if you need to turn the TV on to distract you from what you're doing.

However, if you're looking to increase the mental and physical challenge of your workout, it might be time to switch off the TV and tune into yourself instead. Because even just turning your mental focus inward to increase the intensity of your workout can boost your mood in unexpected ways, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Health Psychology.

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While increasing your workout intensity when you're already in a bad mood seems both impossible and terrible, the study found that increasing the intensity of your workout can actually be much more pleasurable than you'd expect. And if you've ever tried to sprint while also watching TV, you know that increasing your intensity while still watching Jane the Virgin can prove physically difficult.

Focusing instead on the rhythm of your breath, the ways your feet strike the treadmill, and forming and reforming incremental mental goals for yourself during your workout can increase mindfulness and improve your levels of exercise satisfaction, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology. The study found that strengthening the relationship between physical activity and mindfulness can improve your level of satisfaction with your workout much more than working out without mindfulness might.

Splitting your focus between your workout and reruns of NCIS can also diminish the positive benefits of exercising mindfully, according to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. Because when participants' workouts were based in mindfulness and being present in their bodies (as opposed to distracting themselves from their bodies by watching TV), the study found that participants were able to breathe more effectively, their heart rate improved, and their "rest and digest" parasympathetic nervous system functioning was stronger.

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Paying more attention to mindfulness, or deliberate attentiveness to your body and senses, can also generally increase your physical activity levels, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Health Psychology. Developing a mindfulness practice can influence your physical fitness by making it more likely that you'll maintain your exercise routine, the study found. So keeping your mind firmly on your body (and away from the TV) might actually make you more likely to consistently exercise.

But ultimately, if watching TV helps motivate you to hit the gym and makes your overall life experience more pleasing, then you should definitely watch all the TV you want. Just make sure you don't tumble off the treadmill. And if you feel like you need the TV to work out, that's completely OK: working out mindfully just isn't for everyone, and there's nothing wrong with that. Still, if that sounds like you, you might want to rethink whether your current workout plan is really the best for you. If you're that bored by it, it might also help make you happier in the gym to switch it up and try alternative forms of cardio.

Either way, if you think it might be a fun mental and physical challenge, see if you can tap into your mental focus muscles to add another cool component to your training. Who knows, it might make your workout as exciting as the next episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Studies Referenced:

Tsafou, K.E. (2016) Mindfulness and satisfaction in physical activity: A cross-sectional study in the Dutch population. Journal of Health Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25631662.

Kwan, B.M. (2017) What to expect when you're exercising: An experimental test of the anticipated affect-exercise relationship. Health Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27991804.

Strowger, M. (2018) Mindfulness meditation and physical activity: Evidence from 2012 National Health Interview Survey. Health Psychology, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30234351.

Kennedy, A.B. (2015) Mindfulness and Physical Activity. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1559827614564546.