The latest data released by Spotify only confirms what we already knew: listening to music is absolutely central to the workout routines of millions of people, whether in the gym or out pounding the streets.
The 83 million users of the service currently have access to around 43.5 million workout-themed playlists, giving them music perfectly curated to help push them through their cardio regimes. (For those of you interested, Drake’s ‘God’s Plan’ was the most streamed ‘workout song’ in 2018, closely followed by ‘I Like It’ by Cardi B and Eminem’s ‘’Till I Collapse’.)
The continued popularity of podcasts can also be traced to the gym. Today, 61 per cent of UK adults regularly listen to at least one podcast, with 21 per cent listening once a week. While most people tune in to their favourite show for entertainment, around 11 per cent of listeners confess to using podcasts to distract themselves from work or exercise.
Of course, none of this is surprising. Music being used as a distraction from repetitive labour has been around forever. Take the history of the blues as an example. The music originated on those Southern US plantations during the 19th century as a result of African-American sharecroppers, singing their hearts out as they toiled in the cotton and vegetable fields.
But the real benefits of listening to music, or getting caught up in all manner of other distractions offered by technology – such as smart phones and watches – are starting to be questioned by health and fitness professionals.
Studies suggest that texting while engaged in exercise impacts balance and stability by 45 per cent, while talking on the phone makes our balance 19 per cent worse. Technology is also hampering our performance. Another study finds that gym-goers that message people on their phone at some point during a 20-minute workout spend almost half of that time in a low-intensity zone (with a lower heart rate), and just seven minutes in high intensity.
Rather than taking our minds off the pain and discomfort of physical exercise, a number of experts are extolling the virtues of ‘zoning in’ on our bodies during a workout, to both enhance wellbeing and boost fitness.
“Sometimes, there’s a benefit to zoning out during workouts. Putting on your favourite tunes and moving your body through a simple activity you don't have to think about can be meditative,” says Chicago-based personal trainer, Paige Waehner. “These activities allow your mind to roam free while your body works.
“However, when you’re too distracted, you lose that connection to what you're doing, that magical moment of feeling your own strength and power as you exercise. There's a flow that happens when we pay attention to what we’re doing in the current moment, one that we may be missing out on with those distractions.”
In a nutshell, when you focus on what you’re doing – rather than the lyrics of a song, the beat of the music or the story being told on your favourite podcast – the quality of your movement will improve. Waehner, and many others, also points to a boost in satisfaction when exercise is done ‘in the moment’. “When you know exactly what you're working, how each exercise feels and whether you’re getting the most out of each exercise, you can end your workout knowing you did your best,” she says.
The concept of exercising while being mindful has led to a surge of new hybrid workout classes hitting gyms everywhere. Trainers are keen to explore the white space where the mental and emotional meets the physical. 75-minute yoga-HIIT mash-ups have become a ‘thing,’ pushing the body and the mind harder, together. “I think some people are more comfortable with meditation through repetitive movement as opposed to just sitting still,” says Ariane Machin, a sports psychologist and co-founder of the Conscious Coaching Collective.
Of course, we all need distraction, especially in the gym where the temptation is to let the mind wander while our bodies go through the motions. But switching your phone off, ignoring the TV set in the corner of the room and working hard to ‘empty’ your headspace could be the thing to reinvigorate your workout routine, and make you more satisfied than ever about hitting the gym.