And yet, countless studies have shown that, in general, when we try to do more things at once, our performance declines, says Darren Lumberd, a psychologist who works with athletes at Atlantic Sports Health. Multitasking while exercising can also cause safety issues, and can affect the ability to function as an escape or achieve a full mind-body experience.
When done on purpose, though, doing double duty doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if it allows you—or encourages you—to squeeze in a workout, Lumbard says.
Here’s how to make sure multitasking doesn’t take away from your workout
1. Know what your goals are
Whether it makes sense to multitask while you exercise depends on what you’re trying 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 upper-body strength? According to Lumbard, you’ll probably want to focus your full attention on your workout to optimize your performance. “When you introduce multitasking you start to take away the possibility of marginal 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 probably detract from it. Or, if your goal is to squeeze in a few minutes each day in the middle of a busy schedule, be able to keep tabs on emails, or listen to a presentation in the background that makes it happen—and it’s better than no exercise at all, Lumbard says.
2. Make sure it’s safe
The type of workout you’re doing, and how experienced and comfortable you are doing that workout, will also determine if it’s safe for you to divert some of your attention to something else. Obviously, you’ll want to be careful when you’re running on the treadmill or exercising outside. 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 you don’t lose track of your form due to distraction, which can lead to injury. Cassey Ho, founder of Blogilates, a popular YouTube channel offering at-home Pilates videos, has created several “Netflix-friendly” videos, for which she says she opts for simple, repetitive movements with the head forward. But in general, he says, the idea of someone not paying full attention to his videos, at least when doing them for the first time, isn’t ideal “It’s already hard enough that I’m not there personally fixing their form,” she says
Whenever you’re doing a movement that’s new to you — even if it’s something as simple as a stationary bike or elliptical — focus on the arm work to get comfortable and learn proper form, says Matthew Welch, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He advises that if you have to read through an email, or send a text, to wait for rest between exercises, which he says should often be longer than most people think.
3. Notice how you feel
Not sure if your workout habit of watching TV or scrolling through Instagram is hurting your workout? Notice how you feel when you do it and how it’s affecting your performance, Lumbard advises. Ho agrees, and gives examples of how listening to podcasts at 1.5 pace makes him run faster. “Everything your body and brain are consuming affects the workout,” she says. “So be aware of that.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed that watching TV takes your mind off the exhaustion of the treadmill and leads to a better workout, or that reading work emails while you ride a stationary bike makes you feel more fulfilled when you leave the gym. Or on the other hand, pay attention to whether your output drops when a distraction is introduced, or if multitasking makes you end your workout feeling stressed or distracted. “Exercise can have great effects on stress management,” says Lumbard. “But if we’ve got stress [multitasking]We address the positive effects of exercise.”
If you find yourself constantly multitasking during your workout, you might want to ask yourself why—and adjust your fitness routine accordingly if you find it’s due to boredom, or difficulty focusing on the task at hand.
But if a lack of time or motivation gets in the way of moving at all, hold off on multitasking, says Lumbard—until you can safely do so.