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The Problem with Plugged-in Fitness (and How to Cut the Cord)

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When I first moved to Colorado, I frequented a lot of coffee shops to work, write, and even go on the occasional date. Picking a coffee shop to patronize seems like a simple enough task, but as a writer, night owl, and java snob, I had three important prerequisites: one that didn’t close early, offered great coffee, and, of course, Wi-Fi.

After some research, I found a local roaster who sourced top-notch green coffee and pulled great shots. They were also open until 8:00pm. But, much to my dismay, they offered no Internet — zip, zilch — no Wi-Fi. In this day and age? In fact, the sticker on the cash register even said, “Free hi fives, no wifi.”

Their concept was to be a “community for conversation,” not a library that served coffee. Still, I could hardly believe a modern establishment would attempt to run a successful business without the staple of Internet connectivity. After all, for many people, the coffee shop is the modern-day workplace. Nevertheless, I liked their coffee and vibe, so I decided to give them a shot.

The Problem with Plugged-in Fitness (and How to Cut the Cord)

While a gym is not a coffee shop, Internet connectivity and being “plugged-in” tend to be non-negotiables for fitness customers these days, too:

  • Gym members don’t just want to run on a treadmill; they want to watch cable news and surf the Web while doing so.
  • Lifting weights and exercise classes aren’t considered adequate or complete without instant feedback, endorphin-fueled music playlists, and carefully packaged graphics.
  • Runners feel naked without iPods and heart rate monitors, exercise machines feel incomplete without screens, and health clubs feel barren without flashy media around every corner.

Plugged-in fitness is widespread — and touted as a beneficial trend that helps move us more efficiently towards our goals. But does plugged-in fitness live up to the hype?

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Knowledge Is Power, But Information Is Overrated

As a fitness coach and enthusiast, I’ve jumped head first into the information technology fray. I’ve worn countless fitness wearables, followed online exercise programs, and trained off heart rate zones for years. I’ve looked at every possible way to measure my training zones, heart rate variability, VO2max, body fat, and strength output.

What I have learned is that information may be informative and interesting, but knowledge is power.

Let me explain. Plugged-in fitness is all about instant feedback and constant data —whether it’s the breaking news ticking across your treadmill display, your heart rate, or wattage generated. Such instant feedback may captivate your immediate thoughts, but it can also keep you from concentrating on the bigger picture (or even the task at hand). When you are marinating on how many calories you’re burning, you aren’t necessarily aware of the efficiency of your breath or the tension in your body.

Certainly, information educates and helps you make informed adaptations, especially in the beginning of a program. But information doesn’t tell you how you’re feeling or how connected you are to what you’re doing – you do.

Information doesn’t tell you how to be more mindful, purposeful, or graceful. Only knowledge does. And for you to truly tap into the power of knowledge, you need the opposite of data — silence, stillness, and serenity — all of which are seriously lacking in today’s fitness environment.

The Problem with Plugged-in Fitness (and How to Cut the Cord)

The Problems with Plugged-in Fitness

Though it may seem a bit of an oxymoron, the concept of “stillness” in fitness is necessary for several reasons:

  • First is the obvious notion of safety. Lifting something heavy over your head or sprinting at twelve miles an hour requires every bit of concentration possible to ensure correct form and safety.
  • The second reason you need serenity in your fitness is proficiency. If you aren’t paying attention, you most certainly aren’t becoming more competent at what you’re doing.
  • Third, being present can help you access the elusive and transcendent concept of joy.

Distractions may flood your brain with the reward molecules of endorphin and dopamine, but they can also produce anxiety and even depression at the same time. To find peace of mind and to cultivate lasting happiness, your brain needs the “joy” molecule of serotonin.

The Problem with Plugged-in Fitness (and How to Cut the Cord)

A true demonstration of joy can be found in quieting your mind through activities that combat anxiety and bring you to the present like meditation and yoga. But the concept of “unplugged fitness” can pertain to any modality of exercise, fitness, and sport, particularly when there is a focus on skill and craft.

As a long-time martial artist and boxer, I experienced first-hand the concept of cultivating a craft without the distraction. In a martial arts school or boxing gym you won’t find TVs or flashy technology — just you and your classmates (and, if you’re lucky, a little background music).

The Importance of Play and Liking What You’re Doing

I’m not knocking measurement and scientific validation. Personally, I voraciously read and scour the web to seek out the latest peer-reviewed evidence. Information is important, but it’s not everything.

Like any technological advancement, if not managed properly, data can be a distraction or, worse, an addiction. Turning off your brain and habitually repeating the same exercise patterns can lead to injury and fitness plateaus. That said, you should establish a baseline, develop a program that includes periodic measurement of fitness and wellness metrics, and check in occasionally to chart your progression or regression so you can make necessary adjustments.

There’s a place for examination and measurement in fitness, but there’s also a place for play. And, make no mistake, fitness is play. You don’t “work” sports — you play sports. The same logic applies to the gym. That is, the most important thing you can do when it comes to exercise is to develop a passion and purpose in your fitness.

Staying the course with fitness happens when the concepts of joy, passion, and genuine satisfaction are present and actualized. At some point and on some level, you have to like exercise to truly benefit from it in the long run.

And that doesn’t mean liking your workouts in the way you “like” an article on social media or how you “like” binge-watching TV. It doesn’t mean “playing” fitness the way you “play” a computer game. Immersing yourself in the craft of fitness (like an artist or an athlete does) takes the ability to be in the moment, carefully observe, and express curiosity.

None of which can you accomplish when you’re plugged in.

The Problem with Plugged-in Fitness (and How to Cut the Cord)

Is It Time for You to Unplug?

So, what happened when I gave the unplugged coffee shop in Colorado a try?

While it wasn’t an easy adjustment, not having Wi-Fi turned out to actually be an enhancement to my goals of sipping good java, concentrating on my writing, and making good conversation on a date. Besides, the people there did seem more communal, conversational, and friendly. Ultimately, going without constant connectivity helped me realize the importance of controlling my distractions versus letting them control me.

In fitness and in life, staying in the moment can be challenging. In this digital age, stillness is hard. Running without thumping music is hard. Working out without constant feedback or distraction is hard.

But amid the discomfort of physical effort, the magic of contemplation happens. When you’re busy being distracted from yourself, you miss the opportunity to gain wisdom, knowledge, and perspective. You cannot be both plugged-in and present at the same time.

Next time you exercise or participate in sport, try unplugging and shutting off everything — especially your mind. Pay attention to your labored breathing, your body in time and space, and the rhythm of your movement.

Simply observe yourself. You just might learn something.

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Eric Stevens
For the past seventeen years, Eric Stevens has established himself as a leading fitness professional, consultant, writer, presenter, and television personality. Currently, Eric is the Fitness and Membership Director for the Allegria Spa & Club at Park Hyatt in Avon, Colorado.

In addition to his extensive fitness experience, having managed, coached, and trained in the private health club and non-profit industries, Eric has been a long-time instructor of Western boxing, most recently as boxing coach for the Denver Athletic Club. In 2011, Eric was selected to serve as a trainer in the nationally televised series I Used to Be Fat on MTV. Eric is also a published author and regular contributor to Breaking Muscle, Muscle & Performance, and Whole Life Challenge.

Eric is originally from Portland, Oregon and is a graduate of the University of San Diego. Since 2003, Eric has been a nationally certified personal trainer with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).