It's certainly better than lying on the couch or stuffing your face with popcorn in the theater. In a way, workouts and on-screen entertainment are a perfect match: just think about all those treadmills at the gym that have a TV attached. Some fitness clubs have gone even further, offering cardio cinemas that let you sweat it out in a darkened room while a feature-length film plays on the big screen.
Be aware, though, that there may be drawbacks to getting your exercise and pop-culture consumption all at once—especially if you've got specific fitness goals besides just staying in shape. Here's a quick look at why you may (or may not) want to tune in while you work out.
Watching television or movies while you're running or cycling can help decrease boredom and provide distraction from discomfort "thus helping you push through the pain and exercise at a greater intensity or for a longer time," says University of Texas professor John Higgins, MD, director of exercise physiology at Memorial Hermann Ironman Sports Medicine Institute and a certified personal trainer.
A 2014 study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine supports this. Researchers found that a combination of audio and visual stimuli (music and video) lowered rates of perceived exertion and increased levels of dissociation and positive emotion during intense exercise more than just listening to music alone.
Greg Chertok, a consultant at Telos Sports Psychology Coaching, praises the trend of movie theaters in gyms, especially for people who need the extra motivation. "Creating a friendly, theatrical environment is inviting to those who may otherwise not work out," he says. "It's an allure for those who may be deterred by the prospect of sweating and panting and appearing incompetent in close, uncomfortable proximity to other sweaty, panting folk."
Not only that, but pairing screen time and physical activity can decrease the amount of leisure time you spend sitting on your butt or eating, as you may otherwise do when seeing movies or watching your favorite shows. And if you only allow yourself to watch while you're at the gym or working out at home, it can be great incentive to keep up your fitness habit.
You may be surprised how many calories you can burn while watching your favorite shows. Last year, Netflix unveiled its "Watch It While You Work It" campaign, releasing rough stats on how many calories viewers can burn on a treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike while watching single shows, movies, or entire seasons.
A 44-minute episode of The Walking Dead, for example, is long enough to burn 152 on a treadmill set at 4 mph (15-minute miles) with no incline. Likewise, a season of House of Cards will burn you 4,561 calories at the same speed, and the entire Breaking Bad series a whopping 17,553.
Distraction can be a good thing, but it has its downsides, such as keeping you from focusing on intensity and causing you to tune out and slack off, says Chertok. "I would not recommend movie watching to those whose goals are loftier than, let's say, staying active," he says. "Attending to, following, and processing movie content demands lots of cognitive storage, which depletes reserves that would otherwise be used to workout vigorously."
Anyone who's incorporating high-intensity intervals into their training likely won't get much of a dissociative benefit, anyway. "Above a given effort threshold, physiological cues dominate attentional focus, and all the music or TV watching in the world isn't going to distract you from the physical feelings of exhaustion," he says. Anyone who wants a "cinematic experience" while exercising probably isn't all that eager to push their cardio past a certain point of discomfort.
Higgins also notes potential risks of distraction, including a higher likelihood of accidents and injuries—like spilling your water on the machine, not noticing an untied shoelace, or practicing poor form.
You don't want to become dependent on your TV screen, either. "When traveling or just going outside for exercise, you may find it difficult because now there's no movie to distract you or stimulate you to work out," says Higgins.
Then there's perhaps the biggest mental downside: "Exercise can often help clear your mind and help you solve problems," says Higgins. "If you're now focused on the movie, you may lose that valuable benefit."
Make It Work
If you're going to work out in front of the TV or a movie screen, try using the programming to encourage intervals and variety, suggests Higgins, rather than just going on auto-pilot.
For example: Every time a certain character appears on screen or says a specific catchphrase, jump off the treadmill and do 10 squats or burpees. Maybe you sprint through every other commercial. Or maybe you just split your favorite 30-minute show up into three segments: Warm up through the first commercial break, run hard until the next one, then cool-down through the show's final minutes.
Your choice of programming probably matters, too. Comedies and action movies may be easier to process while working out than dramas or depressing news programs.
Bottom line: "TV watching likely diminishes the benefits of one's workout," says Chertok, but if it's getting you off the couch, watch away. Just limit your screen time to low- or moderate-intensity workouts, and don't get so wrapped up you start ignoring your body's own cues. And don't forget about low-tech ways to make your workout more enjoyable, too: Get outside, recruit a buddy, or join a club. Plenty of distraction, no screen required.
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