IMAGE: Jacqueline Wojtusik
Tim Roske  /  AP
Jacqueline Wojtusik adjusts her MP3 player during a workout in Colonie, N.Y. Participants in a British study worked about 13 percent harder to up-tempo music compared with silence.
updated 1/11/2007 10:11:48 PM ET 2007-01-12T03:11:48

Jennifer Unruh can run a mile in two songs.

“I’ve got it figured out,” said Unruh, who moves to the beat of Van Halen and The Fray on her iPod. “Usually, every song lasts about four minutes. I run a mile in a little over eight. So if I can get through two songs, I know I’m a mile though my run.”

Gyms are jammed with people like Unruh — the guy on the treadmill watching ESPN, the aerobic class bouncing to “Hollaback Girl,” the spinner reading Self magazine. Words, images and especially songs can provide inspiration for exercisers, as well as a distraction from tedium and discomfort.

Unruh, director of wellness support at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, uses her songs-per-mile mind games as a way to keep engaged.

But are those distractions good or bad for exercisers? Researchers say it cuts both ways. Yes, a dose of video or audio can inspire better workouts. But distractions also can hurt performance. In a way, music can add static to the mind-body connection.

Since the dawn of the Walkman, headphones have been as important as sneakers to many exercisers. Jacqueline Wojtusik, an Albany, N.Y.-area fashion designer who wears headphones for her regular workouts, listens to disco, ’80s dance, electronic — anything as long as it has a fast beat.

“If it has a higher beat per minute,” she said, “then I tend to stay with that beat.”

Science is on her side.

In a 2005 study, British researchers put 18 undergraduates on stationary bicycles to pedal either to silence or to “popular electronic dance music” on headphones. Participants worked about 13 percent harder to the up-tempo music compared with silence. One of the researchers, Sam Carr, suggested in an e-mail interview that music competes with an exercisers’ awareness of how hard they’re breathing, or how much their legs ache.

Psychologists sometimes use the phrase “dissociation effect” to describe distractions like music and TV, and they have found it can have other benefits.

Dr. James Annesi, a health psychologist who works at the same Atlanta YMCA as Unruh, found that novice exercisers given a choice of TV or music were more apt to stick with an exercise program than those told to focus only on their exertions or people limited to one type of media. If the gyms look like media centers, that’s fine by Annesi, as long as it encourages people to exercise.

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“The more dissociation the better, the more we can distance the people from their discomfort,” he said.

Still, athletes digging deep for peak performance would do well to ditch the headphones and focus on their bodies. Studies have shown that the more distracted the athlete, the slower the times, said Ohio University psychology professor Benjamin Ogles.

“If you want to maintain a high level of intensity, you pretty much have to focus on your body,” he said.

This is related to the belief that noisy gadgets interfere with the intensely focused mental state many athletes refer to as “flow.” For instance, visitors to the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Stockbridge, Mass., are encouraged to leave the headphones behind. Jennifer Young, director of healthy living programs, said she wants to keep visitors’ mind-body connections strong.

Hikers at Kripalu are coached to “scan” their bodies by concentrating sequentially on their ankles, hips, shoulders and so on. Even during weightlifting — an activity linked more to Metallica then meditation — people are asked to visualize what their muscles are doing, or to focus on their breathing.

“Don’t turn out and turn off,” Young said, “because then there’s that underlying signal, ‘Oh, working out is something I don’t want to do. I’m escaping it by doing this.’ ”

Even Anna Fyodorova, a triathlete from New York City who calls the iPod one of the “greatest creations made” for training, sees its limits. When other runners wore their ear buds during a recent 60-kilometer race, she decided against it.

“When you’re racing, you have to concentrate,” she said. “You have to be totally in the moment.”

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