We all know that five 30-minute sessions of vigorous exercise each week is necessary for obtaining and maintaining high levels of health and well-being. The type of exercise doesn't matter, although a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training provides optimal benefit. However, what many people don't seem to know is that their exercise time needs to be focused, that is, mentally focused. Without such specific attention, you may not derive the benefits you're seeking. Importantly, your exercise time is not just another way to spend time.1,2
If you visit a fitness center as an observer, you may see a lot of people wearing exercise gear who are doing many things, none of which is exercising. You'll see people doing a set with weights and then spending the next few minutes scrolling through their text messages, responding to a phone call, or fooling around with the playlist on their portable music device.
You'll see people who are presumably exercising, but what they're really doing is carrying on an extended conversation with their "personal trainer" throughout their entire set of 12 bench presses or 12 dumbbell squats. You'll see acquaintances meet by chance, as each one is on his or her way to another piece of equipment. They stop and chat for 10 minutes before moving on to where they were going and resuming their exercise session.
The same kinds of non-exercise activities occur in the stationary bike/elliptical machine/treadmill area, where people are consistently interacting with their electronic devices or talking with neighbors or passers-by while simultaneously striding, stepping, or pedaling, furiously or otherwise.
What's wrong with this picture? None of these texting-phoning-and-socializing-while-exercising persons seems to have been informed that exercise time is for exercise. But that's a critical message to have missed. When exercising, concentration is key.3 When you exercise, you're training entire physiological systems to respond to mechanical loads and ever-changing weight-bearing stresses. Deep structures involved in this training include muscles and ligaments attached to your spine and the long bones of your legs and arms, as well as the electrical control centers in your heart. These deep structures must be able to respond instantaneously, receiving and sending accurate information on the fly from and to your brain and your cardiorespiratory and endocrine systems.
Any other input and output, such as talking to friends or manipulating an electronic playlist, will act as noise and seriously interfere with gaining any lasting benefit from your exercise activities. Also, distractions lead to injury. When you're distracted, your body is cooling down. The back strain or hamstring pull you've experienced may, in fact, be accurately attributed to a failure of focus.
The takeaway is that interruptions should be brief. You can certainly chat with a friend for 30 seconds or a minute. You can very quickly page through your text messages, if that's what you feel you need to do. But your focus should immediately snap back to your exercise. By fully focusing on what you're doing, the valuable time you spend exercising will result in appropriate long-term benefits.
1Weng TB, et al: Differential Effects of Acute Exercise on Distinct Aspects of Executive Function. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2014 Oct 9. [Epub ahead of print]
2Voss MW, et al: The influence of aerobic fitness on cerebral white matter integrity and cognitive function in older adults: results of a one-year exercise intervention. Hum Brain Mapp 34(11):2972-2985, 2013
3Raine LB, et al: The influence of childhood aerobic fitness on learning and memory. PLoS One 2013 Sep 11;8(9):e72666. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0072666. eCollection 2013