Study highlights dangers of keeping your phone handy at the gym

Hong Kong fitness experts agree with US researchers that the distraction of calls or texting not only can lead to injury but also undermine the intensity and efficacy of a workout

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 11:02am

The next time you hit the gym you may want to leave your smartphone in your locker. According to two recent studies, talking on the phone or texting during your workout can lead to less intense exercise and even lead to injury.

“Certain cell phone functions, texting and talking, can be detrimental to a bout of exercise,” says Michael Rebold, PhD, an assistant professor of integrative exercise science at Hiram College in Ohio, who led the studies. The research team found that speaking or texting on your smartphone can negatively affect your balance whether at the gym or conducting everyday activities.

The study, “The Impact of Different Cell Phone Functions and Their Effects on Postural Stability”, examined the postural stability of 45 students as they texted, talked, and listened to music on smartphones while using a Biodex Balance System SD to measure their posture.

“Participants performed an exercise in which they had to keep a dot in the centre of the screen as best as they could for the duration of each assessment,” says Rebold. “This is where we found that those who use their cell phone for texting and talking have negative impacts on their balance.”

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The results show that texting has the most significant impact on balance, reducing postural stability by 45 per cent when compared to not using a smartphone at all. Speaking on a smartphone reduced postural stability by 19 per cent and listening to music did not have any notable impact.

A previous study led by Rebold, “The Impact of Cell Phone Texting on the Amount of Time Spent Exercising at Different Intensities”, included 32 participants and measured the effects of texting on a smartphone while on a treadmill. They were monitored during a 30-minute session as texts were sent to them. They could either respond to the texts or ignore them, with new texts sent every two minutes. Each subject could adjust the speed of the treadmill at any time.

The intensity of workouts dropped dramatically as texts were answered, when compared to the control group. On average, the texting subjects spent more time on a lower speed setting than those who didn’t text, which could reduce workout intensity.

Texting also was dangerous for some of the subjects, according to Rebold. “We witnessed a few close calls, slipping off of the belt of the treadmill, but since our research focused on college students they have all been raised in this digital age and have somewhat better experience multi-tasking while using their cell phone.”

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Rebold also warns that age should be considered when using a phone at the gym. “I’m sure with advancing age and with impairments in sensory skills and reaction time their performance while exercising and using their cell phone will only become more impaired. Future studies should focus on cell phone use during exercise in middle- to older-aged individuals so we can start understanding how they respond.”

Peter Fisher, general manager of UP Fitness in Central and Causeway Bay, says the potential downfalls of using a smartphone during workouts are obvious. “Walking whilst speaking on a cell phone or texting makes you more likely to injure yourself because you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Posture is compromised because you are peering down at your phone whilst texting or walking with hand to your head if speaking. As a personal training gym I would be seriously concerned if clients were able to successfully text whilst training with one of our trainers.”

Fisher says phones could be used to record performance, play music or as a timer but “beyond that they are largely distracting”.

Those distractions extend beyond tripping or coordination, Fisher says. “For our clients the hour per day they spend with us might be the only respite they have from hours of staring at screens. It is vitally important that their time with us is a human interaction and not two people continuing to stare at screens between sets.”

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Paolo Lobo, a fitness instructor at the Fitness Centre at The Mandarin Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, says his clients are also urged to leave the phone behind. “We advise them not to use their mobile phones during workouts for their safety and the comfort of other guests. ”

For Lobo, a lack of focus means not getting the most from your workout. “Focus is very important during exercise. If one gets distracted, not only will he possibly hurt himself in an accident, he will also not be able to obtain the full benefits from working out. You need to concentrate on what you are doing during that particular time.”

However, Lobo has seen a rise in phone use at the gym since smartphones grew in popularity. “With the invention of smartphones, people have become attached to their phones, using them wherever they are.”

Pure Fitness, which operates at nine locations in Hong Kong, has a no-phone policy in group fitness classes. Michelle Chow, a representative for the group, says they provide space for people to sit if they need to handle personal matters before going back to training areas.

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Cris O’Brien, an owner of CrossFit Asphodel, Hong Kong’s first CrossFit gym has been training clients for six years and has created a novel environment to limit distractions. “We actually focus on keeping our clients engaged during their one-hour session. We minimise distractions, we don’t even have mirrors, so that our clients can maximise their value and focus on safety.”

O’Brien does see a potential for harm in the gym as smartphone use grows. “It’s actually quite scary, especially when you think about how the majority of people are unaware of ergonomics of mobile phone use. There is a ‘new syndrome’ that has popped up on the scene called ‘text neck’ – essentially a strain in the neck and upper back muscles as a result of being in a poor position for such long periods. And even worse, this is one of the first times in history that we have seen so many children develop this kind of pain.”

So should you just lock up your smartphone every time you hit the gym? Rebold says there is still one benefit to having your phone on you.

“If you are going to use your cell phone while working out limit it to only using it for music purposes.”