The 4 hidden dangers of distracted exercise

For optimum workout results, you've got to hone your focus.

In the not-too-distant past, working out was still thought of as an opportunity to unwind and unplug. These days it’s practically a given that you’ll keep your eyes trained on one or more screens. Pumping out intervals on the bike, elliptical or treadmill, we channel-surf Pandora, watch “True Detective” and tap out work emails.

While data-collecting can help you maximize your sessions, distracted exercising can actually compromise your workout results.

Specifically, recent research from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia reveals that distracted exercise could be the hidden cause of your aches and pains. The study, which compared the gaits of subjects who walked while holding a phone and texting to those who were unencumbered, finds that looking at the device—and especially typing on it—significantly stiffens your posture, slows your walk, shortens your steps and compromises your ability to move in a straight line, all of which can lead to injury.

So what biomechanical risks are you taking when you screen-gaze at the gym (beyond the danger of falling off the treadmill)? We asked Equinox Advisory Board member Michol Dalcourt, a renowned kinesiologist and founder and director of the Institute of Motion, a website that offers fitness pros resources on human motion to implement in training. “When you restrict motion in one place on the body [e.g. by trying to hold your head and hands still while you text], you have to make up with it and move too much somewhere else.” Here, four hazards you could save yourself from by keeping movements untethered.

Headache: “Typically when you’re walking or running, your eyes are gazing toward the horizon and you have varying depths of field,” Dalcourt says. By instead focusing on a screen (whether phone or TV) that’s 20 inches from your face, you mess up the body’s innate oculomotor response—your movements as a reaction to visual stimuli. “It’s a new environment for the body to be in, and trying to cope causes a lot of people get headaches,” Dalcourt says.

Back strain: When you use your legs to move forward, your arms naturally swing to feed the force of your momentum to the abdominal wall, which helps you continue on a straight path. If you’re texting, your arms remain still. That means too much twisting, not enough support from your core, and increased risk of injury to the lower back, Dalcourt says.

Joint damage: In addition to limiting your range of motion, diverting attention from your workout to a screen compromises your ability to I.D. an injury as it’s happening. “When you escape by watching TV, you lack the inherent internal feel of exercise,” Dalcourt says. “If you’re knee starts pulling, you might not be aware of it, increasing your risk for a more serious injury.”

Pulled muscle:Believe it or not, the actual content of whatever email you’re reading is a factor in determining biomechanical risk level. Say, for example, the boss is on a rampage or you’re finding out that an assistant double-booked key meetings. Your psychological stress in that moment translates to tightened muscles, putting them in peril, Dalcourt says.