Distraction in Action: Exercising While Multi-Tasking

"Today on Dr. Phil: Folks who fall off the treadmill because they aren't paying attention... and the people who love them."

Exercise arouses a strange psychology. "I can't think of another activity that people spend so much time on without wanting to think about what they are doing," said Steven Devor, an exercise physiologist at Ohio State University.

Known as "dissociation effect," the phenomenon describes the behavior of people working out while listening to music, staring at a television or reading. Multi-tasking has become the modus operandi for many exercisers.

Like others around him at Lifestyle Family Fitness in New Albany, Ohio, Jason Ayres recently passed time on a treadmill by playing Green Day on his MP3 player and watching SportsCenter on the screen attached to the machine.

"Television takes my mind off how far I have to run, and the music helps regiment my breathing and pace," said the Columbus police officer, 33. Whether such dissociation helps or hinders performance remains a matter of debate among researchers.

Inspiration for Perspiration

"There are definitely two schools of thought," Devor said. "One is that distractions help people exercise longer. The other is that they compromise fluidity of movement."

Amy Harmon wouldn't think of working out without her iPod. She has a 35 minute, eight-song program for running and a mellower 15 minute, four-song one for cooling down.

With selections by Christina Aguilera, Ben Harper, Jane's Addiction, Phish, Weezer and the White Stripes, she structures her treadmill playlist to match changes of pace. "It's like I am choreographing my run," said Harmon, 28, of New Albany.

In a 2005 British study, uptempo music (compared with silence) helped 18 participants on stationary bicycles work 13 percent harder. Other studies have shown that exercisers who distance themselves from their discomfort are more apt to stick with regimens or work out longer.

Harmon, for example, extended her time on two cardio machines from 20 to 35 minutes because she became engrossed in "The Oprah Winfrey Show." "I almost forgot I was working out," she said. "She had on the two boys who were kidnapped in Missouri." She waited for a commercial break to switch from a stationary bike to an elliptical trainer.

Chris Spry, 24, also chooses music for his iPod to match the intensity of the aerobic exercise. Yet the Columbus State Community College student prefers lifting weights in silence. "I like to slow down, focus on my form and count my repetitions," he said.

Don't Lose That Focused Feeling

Some research suggests that noisy electronics interfere with performance and efficiency. Ben Ogles, an Ohio University psychologist, has examined the thoughts of thousands of marathon runners during races. What he found is that runners who focused on the task at hand ran faster than those who were detached.

The pace among marathoners who chatted with other runners or daydreamed "dropped off because they were not focused on their bodies," Ogles said.

Marcia Miller, an instructor and owner of Yoga on High in the Short North, likes to be "conscious" during all pursuits. An avid cyclist, she pedals outdoors to the sounds of nature and her breathing. She knows she represents the exception.

"Most people take for granted that they have to be distracted during exercise," she said. While no one has yet shown up at her yoga class with headphones, Miller said, "I wouldn't be surprised if it happened someday." She has taught yoga to runners.

"There is joy in movement," she insists. Separating mind from body prevents entering the mystical state called "flow" or "the zone," Miller said.

During such a time, the execution of a difficult athletic skill becomes effortless. Devor dislikes diversions, he said, because "there is an inherent assumption in them that exercise is just something you have to get through." Distraction also raises the risk of injury, according to some experts.

"People who aren't paying attention to their bodies may fall off a treadmill or continuously break form, . . . (which) can lead to injury over time," said trainer Jack Mougin, coowner of Good Bodies Personal Fitness in Dublin, Ohio. "The more people focus on what they are doing, the better their effort will be."

Exercising Amidst Entertainment

Where the health-club industry stands isn't in doubt: many modern fitness facilities resemble media centers. The $5.1 million remodeling of Premiere at Sawmill (formerly Sawmill Fitness Center) has a "media wall" filled with 11 flat-screen, 46-inch televisions.

The Sawmill center, Lifestyle Family Fitness and other clubs have stocked "cardio-theater" equipment with individually mounted screens and audio receivers. Lifestyle recently purchased a music-video program that is customized to match the demographics at each club.

With country artist LeAnn Rimes singing on a screen suspended from the ceiling of the New Albany outlet, member Stefanie Grant, 24, raced on a treadmill tuned to HGTV.

The home-and-garden network, she said, "helps me reach my distance goals because I'm not looking at the machine every ten seconds to see how far I have to go."

Ogles, the OU researcher, emphasizes the importance of practicing concentration. "Distraction is useful to the average Jane and Joe who are just trying to get in exercise," he said. "But if you want to perform well, you need to monitor your body."

dfiely@dispatch.com Copyright (c) 2007, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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