Is exercising with your iPod making you stupid?


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Just read an interesting article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times. The nut: Researchers believe that our brains need downtime in order properly assimilate new information and memories, but we now have so many devices to fill every moment with distraction and titillation that we may be compromising our ability to learn.

It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television. Just another day at the gym…

But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas. Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside, away from her devices, research suggests.

This is a new wrinkle in a very familiar debate about the pros and cons of exercising with headphones or other electronic devices. I have to confess that, though I’ve read all the literature about how music can pump you up and so on, I’m in the shrinking minority that prefers their exercise unwired. And my reasons, on an intuitive level, fit with what Richtel describes in this article. My life is pretty hectic, and I’m bombarded by a constant stream of information and stimulus. Most of us are these days, I think. I’d love to say that, when I head out for a run, it gives me a chance to think in peace, to have those deep insights that require uninterrupted meditation. But really, I usually just space out. If these researchers are right, though, that period of mental blankness could play a key role in the epiphanies I have later on, since my brain has been busy consolidating and organizing information.

Of course, there’s a flip side. It’s undeniable that lots of people really like exercising with music and/or TV. And that’s got to be better than not exercising at all, as Richtel’s article also acknowledges:

Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain, it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people to sweat.

“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing it outside, for your mood and working memory.”

10 Replies to “Is exercising with your iPod making you stupid?”

  1. Although I do run with my ipod, I do not swim or bike with it. I think I’m probably evenly out when I swim for 90 minutes with only my thoughts to keep my entertained.

    Interesting article, thanks!

  2. Never could run with earphones. They get in the way. I don’t mind running with music, but I completely agree that run time is space-out time. Or, if I’m doing a workout, it’s focus on the workout time, and music doesn’t really help. In the road race I ran on Sunday, the organizers asked everyone to remove their devices. I think it was because it was connected to a triathlon, and I think that sport has maybe, for safety reasons, outlawed it.

  3. I run and sometimes bike with my earphones… don’t hike, walk, swim, xc-ski, etc. with them. But I use them for running – for cadence, motivation, etc.
    I have whole playlists of music I never listen to otherwise – I think it ends up being a reward / ‘guilty pleasure’ / motivation unto itself, maybe. (No one will stop me listening to that music in the car, but I wouldn’t – but it’s great running music.)
    I can’t think Deep Thoughts and run at the same time – so I may as well listen to really loud, inappropriate music.

  4. I don’t always listen to music while I exercise but I do listen to it while I sleep. I wonder if that has a similar application.

  5. Interesting question, Vicki. My guess is that it depends on where your attention is focused. It’s hard for me to believe that music as background noise could dominate what your brain gets up to — especially once you’re asleep! It’s when you’re focused on the music, following along with it, that your brain doesn’t get as much chance to wander, I’d think.

    I know for me, my personality and my relationship with music is such that I have a hard time NOT focusing on music when it’s playing. That’s why, for example, I can’t listen to music while I write (much to my regret).

  6. This might seem petty but I think the title of your post could be re-worded so that it doesn’t infer causality between using an iPod and ‘making you stupid’. In the article/study you refer to, it seems the researchers are only saying that using an iPod/other device hinders a person’s ability to learn [what they don’t already know].

    I don’t think they mean a person’s mental faculties will degrade, just that they might not improve. To me, ‘making you stupid’ implies a degradation of mental abilities.

    I find too often that headlines/titles skew information or imply something that the science doesn’t actually say. Then again, your post title was certainly catchy. Just something to think about.

  7. Point taken, Saara. It’s certainly true that the title was chosen with the goal of being catchy (and maybe a bit funny) rather than to accurately reflect the contents of the post. It’s always a delicate balancing act between trying to get people’s attention and trying to faithfully capture the nuance of a study in a 10-word headline. In this case, maybe I tilted too far in the direction of “catchy.”

  8. I love working out with music that has a strong beat, and believ ethat it encourages a higher level of performance – but I agree with the article. After a good workout, I can rarely even remember the tunes that were played, I suspect I am reacting to the beat on a subconscious level without really listening to the music. I would suggest that there is a difference between background music and actively managing a BlackBerry or a playlist of familiar songs on your MP3 player, and it is the conscious mental engagement with the device(s)that is detrimental.

  9. I, actually, must listen to music while working out. Music can serve as a mood alterer. It keeps me pumped. Otherwise, my thoughts stray to, “when will this set be over?” or “what bills do I have to pay this week?” or other stress inducing thoughts. While listening to music, I stay motivated and free to enjoy my workouts. It may be correlated to growing up as a dancer. Additionally, I have ADD and soft music as a background has always helped me study.

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