And yet, countless studies have shown that in general, as we try to accomplish more and more things at the same time, our performance declines, says Darren Lumbard, a psychologist who works with athletes at Atlantic Sports Health. Multitasking during exercise can also pose safety concerns and affect our ability to use exercise as an escape or have a full mind-body experience.
However, when done with intention, pulling double duty doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if it’s what allows you, or encourages you, to exercise, says Lumbard.
Here’s how to make sure multitasking doesn’t detract from your workout
1. Know what your goals are
Whether or not it makes sense to multitask while working out largely depends on what you’re looking to get out of your workout and how you’re measuring success. Do you have specific fitness goals, like becoming a faster runner, cross-training for a sport, or building more upper-body strength? You’ll probably want to focus all of your attention on your training to optimize your performance, according to Lumbard. “When you introduce multitasking, you start to eliminate the potential for fringe gains,” he says.
If you view exercise primarily as an escape or stress reliever, watching TV or listening to a podcast may enhance your experience, but trying to respond to work emails will likely detract from it. Or, if your goal is simply to have time to move around for a few minutes each day in the middle of a busy schedule, being able to check emails or listen to a presentation in the background may be what allows you to make that happen, and that’s better. than not exercising at all, says Lumbard.
2. Make sure it’s safe
The type of training you are doing and how experienced and comfortable you are doing that training will also determine whether it is safe for you to turn some of your attention elsewhere. Obviously, you’ll want to be careful when you’re running on a treadmill or exercising outdoors. And intense full-body workouts like HIIT, Tabata, and weightlifting are never going to be good candidates for multitasking.
But even when doing something low-impact like Pilates, make sure distractions don’t cause you to lose track of your form, which could lead to injury. Cassey Ho, founder of Blogilates, which offers a popular at-home Pilates video YouTube channel, has made several “Netflix-friendly” videos, for which she says she chooses simple, repetitive head-forward movements. But overall, she says, the idea of someone not giving her videos their full attention, at least when she first makes them, isn’t ideal. “It’s hard enough that he’s not there in person fixing his form,” she says.
Any time you perform a movement that’s new to you, even if it’s something simple like a stationary bike or elliptical, focus on the task at hand to get comfortable and learn proper form, says Mathew Welch, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He suggests that if you need to read an email or send a text, wait for a break between exercises, which he says should often be longer than most people think.
3. Observe how you feel
Not sure if your habit of watching TV or scrolling through Instagram while working out is hurting your workout? Notice how you feel while doing it and how it affects your performance, Lumbard suggests. Ho agrees, giving the example of how listening to podcasts at 1.5 speed makes her run faster. “Everything your body and brain take in affects your workout,” she says. “So that’s something to keep in mind.”
Maybe you find that watching TV takes your mind off the tedium of the treadmill and leads to a better workout, or that reading work emails while riding a stationary bike makes you feel even more accomplished when you leave the gym. Or, on the other hand, pay attention to whether his performance drops when a distraction is introduced, or if multitasking leads him to end his workout feeling stressed or scattered. “Exercising can have big implications for stress management,” says Lumbard. “But if we are stressing [multitasking]we counteract the positive effects of exercise.”
If you’re constantly multitasking during your workout, you may want to ask yourself why and adjust your exercise routine accordingly if you find it’s due to boredom or difficulty concentrating on the task at hand.
But if lack of time or motivation are barriers to getting moving, multitask, Lumbard says, as long as you do it safely.