Over the past 20-plus years, I’ve developed an unhealthy relationship with my workout gadgets. It started with a Walkman, then escalated to a jumpy Discman, just about every version of the iPod and finally an iPhone with music synced to the Nike+ app. As songs blasted through my headphones, I pushed myself for the inspirational mile-marker callouts and drove myself harder to hear Olympic stars like Sanya Richard Ross congratulate me: “Great job getting out there!” I compared my weekly pace charts, devised playlists that would motivate me on hills (yes, they almost always included “Born to Run”) and faithfully analyzed the digital record of my achievements.
Then my app crashed. At first I was upset, but in my frantic efforts to fix the problem, I came face-to-face with an uncomfortable truth: Data and music had become a crutch. Did I really need them to get through my workout — to make it count? The only way to find out was to get rid of my devices. No music, no apps, no watch. I’d run the same 5K route and check only the kitchen clock when I left and when I returned. At the gym, I’d leave the headphones at home and turn off the data screen. And the rest of my weekly workouts would include outdoor swims and yoga. In other words, the unplugged workout.
Given the array of fitness technology now available to help make exercise more entertaining, efficient and informative — smartphone apps, activity trackers, tricked-out watches like the new Apple Watch, which gives you “credit” for the simple act of standing up from your chair where you — and everyone else — can watch your heart rate on a screen and moving— some people might question the value of going retro. (What’s next for me, eating like a cavewoman?) But also I wonder: Have we all gotten a bit too dependent on tech feedback?
Perhaps, says research psychologist Larry Rosen. “Workout technology can be valuable,” says Rosen, author of the book “iDisorder: Understanding our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us,” but if you are constantly checking your stats, “then that is going to create anxiety — and that’s the last thing you want to do when exercising.” Exercise is supposed to produce endorphins and dopamine, chemicals that make you feel good, not anxiety neurotransmitters like cortisol. “Why would you want to be stressed when you are trying to do something that is supposed to be good for you?” he asks.
Even more potentially damaging, says Rosen, a professor at California State University at Dominguez Hills, is the social media component of some apps — posting your run on Facebook, for example, and relying on your friends to cheer for you virtually. Making your personal workout public sets you up for disappointment, he says: “What if you posted your run and nobody liked it? Does that mean you got nothing out of it?”
Working out wired can also pose safety hazards. Wearing headphones decreases your awareness of traffic, dogs and other potential dangers. Even taking your eyes off the road to check your watch means you’re not paying attention to the present, and that increases risk.
Those little app rewards “might also tempt people to push too hard when they should be listening to their body and not their iPhone,” says Jo Zimmerman, a trainer and instructor of kinesiology at the University of Maryland. Exercise tech, she says “is a double-edged sword. For some people, technology is the exact reason to get off the couch and for others it’s what makes them too competitive.”
Even running guru Hal Higdon, who has worked with developers to create training apps, says that while technology can help the goal-oriented or first-time runner, it can also “destroy our workouts, taking us out of our bodies.” When he was researching the effects of running on the body for his book “Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide,” he says he used a heart monitor for feedback on his runs near Lake Michigan in Indiana. When the book was done, however, he “cast away” the device, he said, “because I would rather focus on the beauty of the park and listen to the lapping of waves on the shore.”
Others prefer the sound of a companion’s voice. Deborah Brooks, the chapter leader of Moms Run This Town in McLean, says that “when we run together as a group I enjoy the company of friends and don’t feel like I need music to push me.”
Brian Beary, a journalist in the District, says that he gave up running with music four years ago and now typically uses only a stopwatch (with a phone in his pocket for emergencies). Last month, he says, “I reached a goal I set myself around the time I stopped running with gadgets: running a marathon in under three hours.”
As for me, I’m not breaking any personal records yet, but I am discovering the less tangible benefits of exercise. Sure, getting out there that first day without my phone was hard. (Even harder was the elliptical without music.) But now that I’ve been up those hills a few times — humming “Born to Run” to myself — I’m beginning to miss the technology less and less. I can hear my breath and the sound of my feet. I am more aware of how my body is moving and of the cars and dogs along the path. Birds provide the music. And just because I don’t record my workouts for posterity, it doesn’t mean they don’t count. In fact, they matter even more.