Health & Fitness | October 26, 2020 8:46 am

A Simple Plan for Working Out Without Your Phone

Workouts should be sacred. But we can't stop worshiping our phones.

man doing pull-ups
Georgijevic/Getty

Exercise time is a wildly disrespected portion of the day.

On average, Americans spend a little over an hour each day working out (7.6 hours a week), and all too often, those hours have to fight tooth and nail to come to fruition. It’s a familiar dance: whenever something “comes up” with work or the kids, whenever you’ve had a bad night’s sleep or a big lunch, that hour of exercise is suddenly the most flexible engagement in your schedule.

In the home workout era, that hour is in even more jeopardy. To be sure, Peloton’s quarterly sales jumped 61% this year and the country is still mired in a dumbbell shortage. Americans do seem to have every intention of working out this year. But consistent home workout routines require serious discipline; when you’re not actively paying for a gym membership, booking time slots with a group class or personal trainer, or driving a car to a health center a town over, it’s easier to blow the whole thing off.

One activity we have zero trouble finding time for, though? Scrolling through our phones. It doesn’t matter how old you are, either: millennials and baby boomers both spend at least five hours a day on their phones, and at large, Americans pick up their phones 160 times a day. A survey conducted earlier this year by Reviews.org went even deeper than that: 88% reported feeling uneasy about leaving their phones at home, 75% reported feeling addicted to their phones and 45% even said they’d rather give up sex for a year than give up their phones.

It should come as little surprise, then, that a 2019 study concluded “lack of leisure time is not a barrier to physical activity” for Americans. According to researchers at the RAND Corporation, American adults have about five hours of free time each day. They just choose to spend it using screens. It all fits. And when those two habits collide — when we decide to combine an activity that gets very little attention (exercise) with one that gets way too much (scrolling through a phone) — we’re just asking for trouble.

Which is why it’s time we all started working out without our phones. Workouts are sacred, but it’s the phones that we can’t stop worshiping. It’s not an easy fix, but axing phones from exercise yields better, more focused workouts, leaving you more knowledgeable about your body — in its powers and limitations. Plus, believe us, it will make you happier in ways that scrolling through the trenches of Twitter in between sets never will.

scrolling through instagram
Claudio Schwarz

Happy Hormones


At an event in Philadelphia a couple years ago, tech entrepreneur Sean Parker said that the goal of social media algorithms is more or less, “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” He compared likes and comments on posts to receiving “a little dopamine hit.” Say what you will about Parker (he’s the guy Justin Timberlake portrayed in The Social Network), but he’s on the mark here. Activity on social media platforms does indeed trigger a dopamine response. Like a slot machine, it offers random “rewards,” and our brains become addicted to checking for (and receiving) those reactions.

Meanwhile, fascinatingly, exercise is a happy hormone powerhouse. Physical activity can boost both dopamine and serotonin levels. There’s a reason no one (uninjured at least) finishes a workout and says “God, I wish I hadn’t done that.” Exercise is a mood regulator and maintains a positive working relationship with your brain’s reward system. This is a far more sustainable “feel-good system” than getting 39 likes on an Instagram. The key is to go all in on exercise-dopamine without trying to cash in on social media-dopamine at the same time, which could only sabotage your efforts. It’s the difference between home-baked banana bread and a Pop Tart found at the bottom of a backpack.

Not to mention, in the age of doomscrolling, there’s no guarantee that your brain will like what it finds on your phone anyway. In the midst of a national election and global lockdown, there’s a decent chance you’ll just end up upset, and spend the time when you should be cranking out 10 pull-ups instead reading sobering statistics, catching up on frustrating news alerts or trying to outwit a Russian bot. It’s little wonder that of the two activities — both of which are capable of making you “happy” — only scrolling through a phone has been shown to make people sad.

Look Up, Instead of “Looking Up”


The health community is acutely aware of how dangerous it is to peer down at a phone all day. According to Dr. K. Daniel Riew, an orthopedic surgeon operating out of New York: “At just 45 degrees, your neck muscles are lifting the equivalent of a 50-pound bag of potatoes.” Trainers are concerned, too. When we were in Hawaii earlier this year, working out on a beach near Banzai Pipeline, it was clear that addressing the phenomenon Dr. Riew described — now commonly known as “tech neck” — was the priority of surf yogi Kahea Hart. Whenever we look down, the vertebrae in our backs compress. This puts pressure on the discs (which are already dehydrating as we age), hunches the shoulders forward, and contributes to low back pain.

It creates one big mess. There are solutions to combat the issue, like a hunk of plastic that releases the psoas muscle, or simply hanging from a pull-up bar for a few minutes each day. But if one thing is clear, you shouldn’t be making the situation worse while you’re actively trying to build up your upper body. This is why learning to work out without a phone is especially important for lifters, where recognizing proper form and keeping the posterior chain intact is so important. If you treat the phone like an extension of your body, it’s going to contort your body however it likes. It’s common (when gyms are open, anyway) to see people sitting at the edge of the bench press bowing their heads like turtles over their phones in the middle of a workout. At the least, that habit leads to distracted workouts. But sustained over time, it could lead to injury.

Apps Aren’t Always the Answer


It’s understandable that without some sort of screen at the ready, many feel completely hopeless trying to string a series of moves together into one cohesive workout. There’s a bit of irony there: before the pandemic, group fitness was on the rise. In that world, you could leave your phone in a locker and then go listen to an instructor. Now, your phone (or tablet, or computer) is the instructor. What should you do?

Well, that depends on what you do. If you’re a runner, keep using Strava. If you’re a yogi, keep watching those YouTube videos. In some cases, wellness tech is so functional and effective that it’s silly to let it go just to prove a point. This applies to newfangled workout machines like Mirror or Peloton, too. But if you’re someone who’s looking to stay generally fit — a little bit of cardio, a little bit of strength training — and you keep cycling through fitness apps in an effort to get there, it’s worth trying a week or two of workouts without your phone. There’s a reason that some exercisers report “feeling bad” after using fitness apps and subsequently delete them.

Fitness apps mean well, but can be needlessly complicated and are often expensive, adding yet another subscription service to the 30 or so you’re already paying around the house. They contain a ton of choice, in order to appeal to the masses, and constantly update themselves, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed or left behind, when you finally log in again to try a workout. And from a functional standpoint, if you’re learning a move on the spot — let’s say, dumbbell flys — you might spend a large portion of your workout watching the app’s video loop over and over again, trying to match the form of a chiseled model. You might be better served looking up a routine ahead of time, so you’d know exactly what you’re trying to target and how you’re going to do it when it’s time to work out. Full-body, bodyweight workouts are your best friend here, because they involved less equipment, and more moves you’ve been familiar with since the second grade.

This Isn’t Goodbye


In 2015, researchers published an article entitled “The Impact of Cell Phone Use on the Intensity and Liking of a Bout of Treadmill Exercise” in medical journal PLOS ONE. Its findings? Talking and texting decrease the intensity of workouts. That checks out. It’s difficult to get too invested in intervals on the treadmill or reps at the leg press when you’re sharing TikToks with friends or on the phone with your aunt. But the same study also discovered that music can increase the intensity of a workout (and your enjoyment of the activity, while it’s at it). That revelation — that tunes are fuel for your heart rate and mood — is important to keep in mind, especially because that music is probably coming from your phone.

It’s a worthy reminder that phones don’t have to actively ruin workouts. You just need to be honest with yourself. If your pointer finger is making pitstops at three or four other apps before you queue up a banger on Spotify, it might be time to consider getting your music from another source.

Ultimately, only you can decide the extent to which your phone use during exercise needs to be reconsidered. A good place to start? Think about the quality of your workouts lately. If you’re not satisfied with them, your phone might be part of the problem. You don’t have to lock it in a safe every time you do some squats, or banish it from workouts forever. And you don’t have to become one of those guys with a “lifting journal” (although it’s a pretty baller, old-school look). But we need to ask ourselves if that same thing we carry around all day really needs to be part of that one elusive hour each day that we get a chance to unplug, unwind and improve ourselves.

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