The average American spends 8.5 hours a day staring at screens.1 Said another way, we spend more than one third of our lives looking at a screen. I don’t know about you, but this got my attention and even scared me a little. Truthfully, I’m probably closer to ten screen hours a day.
Screens Hurt More Than They Help
Screens are an essential part of our modern lives and that isn’t about to change. No statistical study, analysis, or commentary is going to change the fact we use screens to do just about everything – to entertain, to inform, to shop, and, of course, to communicate. Right now, you are staring at a screen to read this article, and maybe while you’re on the treadmill, to boot.
Technology in and of itself is neither good not bad. It can be a force for good, and we all undoubtedly know countless examples to the contrary. But what about our lives in fitness? Do screens help? Do they hurt? It is my contention that gyms, clubs, fitness studios, and the like should be sanctuaries of health and wellness.
Gyms are more than places where we do weights and cardio. They are where we come to get well. With that in mind, though I am as guilty as anyone in using them, when it comes to screens at the gym, I believe they hurt more than they help.
The Modern Fitness Landscape
Working out in the year 2014 has in some ways become synonymous with technology and the use of screens. We track our workouts and follow our virtual trainers on our smart phone apps. On the spin bike, we watch a screen as we “ride” a course through the “French Alps.” On the treadmill, we watch cable news and check the score of the football game.
We’re all guilty of this. When I lift weights, I listen to music through my headphones, which are plugged in to my smartphone. In between sets, I can’t help myself from glancing down at the phone to check Facebook or my email. These days, instead of simply working out, we multitask.
Some might contend this is a good thing. Why not be productive in two ways at once? Why not get a little work done or catch up with a friend from college while you’re working out?
It’s a fair question. I do it and most likely you do, too. After all it’s your workout and it’s your time, so why not kill two birds with one stone? There isn’t much harm in doing so on a case-by-case basis, but in the bigger picture, fitness represents more than a mere means to an end. Here’s why that screen of yours just may be hurting you more than it helps while you work out:
You Can’t See Yourself at the Gym
The truth is, you can’t focus on your body if you’re focused on screens. And seeing yourself is critical in fitness. There’s more than working out (or texting) going on when you exercise. Behind working out is the how and why you do so. That is, how your body moves, how you breathe, and how you express your physicality. Deciphering all that is only done when you’re able to access the present moment.
Every breakthrough, epiphany, and euphoric state I have ever experienced in fitness occurred through finding the present moment, not avoiding it. That eureka moment in life always comes with the willingness and ability to get purely present. With that in mind, screens hinder this process rather than help it.
That ability to be present is a foundational element to growth of any kind. This is true whether we’re talking high-level training, learning a skill, or developing a craft. Having spent years in and around boxing and the martial arts, I can tell you I’ve never once seen a screen in a class at a dojo or dojang. I am sure it happens, but a martial artist knows you must see yourself to learn and grow.
The same holds true in fitness. When your head is pointed up, you might actually see yourself working out – your posture, your form, your essence staring back at you in the mirror. You might notice how relaxed you are (or aren’t) while you run. Or perhaps you can even catch a glimpse of yourself beyond your physicality. That is, you may witness the true nature of your spirit found through the journey in your mind.
The ability to see your body is the only way to find your true physicality in the same sense that truly seeing your mind is the only way you can find your authentic self. Screens help us do neither.
You Can’t See Others at the Gym
Gyms aren’t just places where you workout. They are communities. In case you haven’t noticed, other people also go to your gym. One day, you might actually meet one of them and even have a conversation – if you aren’t staring at the screen.
Personally, I have never found the gym a particularly social place as I am there for the purpose of working out, not chatting with my fellow exerciser. That said, we never know what people will come into our lives and for what reason. People are the reason we’re here, so if you’re at the gym, why not look up occasionally.
I met my girlfriend at the gym and had I been looking down at my screen, I just might have missed her. Furthermore, you can learn from observing others in how they move, breathe, and express their physicality.
The Bottom Line on Screens and Working Out
All of us have different motives behind our workouts, from stress relief, to the desire for a hard body, to burning calories so we can consume more of them. But behind those variables is a deeper goal – the desire to find lasting joy.
Study after study corroborates that watching television and heavy multimedia use make us less satisfied and less fulfilled. A recent study of over 3,400 girls aged eight to twelve found a strong correlation between feeling less socially comfortable and less happy in proportion to increased screen usage. And it’s not just young girls where this holds true.
Ironically, while the screen theoretically brings us together and brings instant happiness, it also isolates. Yes, access to the Internet brings immediate gratification, but lasting joy is a quality found within. Use your workout time as an intensive in finding yourself and your quest for that joy.
Technology isn’t going anywhere, so you must use it as an ally and control when and where you use it, rather than letting it control you. When it comes to fitness and exercise, use technology to plan your workout like you would a road trip. Knowledge is power and to that end technology is a wonderful thing as it relates to fitness. Use the screen to plan your workouts, your meals, your routes, and examine pertinent data that can help you grow.
But once you’re on the trip itself, it’s better to be present. I’d hate to think I’d be stuck looking at Facebook on an African safari. Similarly, our workouts are little journeys. They are an exploration of ourselves. Try looking up during your workouts and see what you find.
1. Stelter, Brian, “8 Hours a Day Spent on Screens, Study Finds,” The New York Times March 26, 2009.
2. Pea, Roy, et al, “Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social well-being among 8- to 12-year-old girls,” Developmental Psychology, Vol 48(2), Mar 2012, 327-336
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.