When It’s Okay To Multitask While Exercising—And When It’s Not

Photo: Getty Images/ Longhua Liao
These days, multitasking while exercising is easier—and more tempting—than ever, whether it’s watching TV on the elliptical, scrolling through emails as you do clamshells, or reading on a stationary bike. Between the explosion of home workout options, the expectation to be available at all times, and the limitless entertainment options at our fingertips, it can feel like just working out—without also accomplishing something else, or digesting some content—is a missed opportunity.

And yet, countless studies have shown that, in general, as we try to accomplish more and more things at one time, our performance declines, says Darren Lumbard, a psychologist who works with athletes at Atlantic Sports Health. Multitasking while exercising can also pose safety problems, and impact our ability to use working out as an escape, or have a full mind-body experience.

When done with intention, though, doing double duty doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially if it’s what allows you—or incentivizes you—to get a workout in, says Lumbard.

Here’s how to make sure multitasking isn’t taking away from your workout

1. Know what your goals are

Whether or not it makes sense to multitask while you exercise 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 developing more upper-body strength? You’ll probably want to focus your full attention on your workout in order to optimize your performance, according to Lumbard. “When you introduce multitasking you start taking away the potential for marginal gains,” he says.

If you see exercise mainly as an escape, or a stress-reliever, watching TV or listening to a podcast may add to your experience, but trying to respond to work emails would probably take away from it. Or, if your goal is simply to make time to move for a few minutes each day amidst a busy schedule, being able to keep tabs on 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 workout you’re doing, and how experienced and comfortable you are doing that workout, will also determine whether it’s safe for you to direct some of your attention toward something else. Obviously, you’ll want to use caution when you’re running on a treadmill, or exercising outdoors. And intense, full-body workouts like HIIT, Tabata, and weight lifting are never going to be good candidates for multitasking.

But even when doing something lower-impact like Pilates, be sure that distractions aren’t causing you to lose track of your form, which could lead to injury. Cassey Ho, founder of Blogilates, which offers a popular YouTube channel of at-home Pilates videos, has made severalNetflix-friendly” videos, for which she says she chooses simple, repetitive movements with the head facing forward. But in general, she says, the idea of someone not paying full attention to her videos, at least when doing them for the first time, is not ideal. “It’s already hard enough that I’m not there in-person fixing their form,” she says.

Whenever you’re performing movement that’s new to you—even if it’s something simple like a stationary bike or an elliptical—focus on the task at hand to get comfortable and learn correct form, says Mathew Welch, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. He suggests that if you need to read through an email, or send a text, to wait for a rest break between exercises, which he says should often be longer than most people think.

3. Notice how you feel

Not sure if your habit of watching TV or scrolling through Instagram as you exercise is harming your workout? Notice how you feel as you do it, and how it’s impacting your performance, suggests Lumbard. Ho agrees, and gives the example of how listening to podcasts at 1.5 speed makes her run faster. “Everything that your body and brain are ingesting affects the workout,” she says. “So that’s something to be aware of.”

Perhaps you notice that watching TV takes your mind off the tedium of the treadmill and leads to a better workout, or that reading through work emails as you ride a stationary bike makes you feel even more accomplished when you leave the gym. Or on the other hand, pay attention to whether your output dips when a distraction is introduced, or if multitasking leads you to ending your workout feeling stressed or scattered. “Doing exercise can have great stress management implications,” says Lumbard. “But if we’re getting stressed [multitasking], we counter the positive effects of exercise.”

If you constantly find yourself multitasking during your workout, you may want to ask yourself why—and adjust your fitness routine accordingly should you find that it’s due to boredom, or difficulty focusing on the task in front of you.

But if lack of time or motivation are barriers to getting moving at all, multitask away, says Lumbard—as long as you do so safely.

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