Exercise provides a wide variety of health benefits, but you may not realize that what you get out of your training is partially dependent on your focus and intent during the workout. Many people intentionally distract themselves from their exercise by watching TV, reading, or performing some other task to take their mind off their workout. Sometimes this is not a big deal, but most of the time, not paying attention results in less effective workouts, slower rates of improvement, and possibly pain or injury.
This is particularly true when lifting weights or engaging in other forms of resistance exercise, because proper technique is critical for getting the most out of your workouts. Maintaining proper technique is obviously important to ensure safety during training, but that is only one of many reasons why it is important. It also reinforces correct movement patterns, which carry over to improve the way your body feels and functions during your entire day.
Another issue is that your body naturally tries to make any exercise as easy as possible, even if it means using poor form or contracting the wrong muscles. Being focused and having the intent to perform every exercise correctly helps prevent your body from finding ways to cheat and make the exercises easier. Making your workout easier may not sound like a bad thing, but the less your muscles work, the less your body is challenged, the fewer calories are burned, and the worse your results will be.
If you don’t intend to perform every exercise as well as possible, then you end up going through the motions and do not get nearly as much out of your workouts. People typically say that they like to distract themselves, because it makes the workout go by quicker, but is that really what you want? The question you have to ask yourself is, do you want a workout that feels quick and easy, but is inefficient, or do you want a workout that is actually effective?
Being focused during your workouts definitely makes them more effective, but the specific intent you have can also affect the specific physical improvements you get from your training. For example, if two people with the same level of strength follow the same heavy strength training program (same weights, sets, reps, etc.), but one person is told to try to lift the weights as fast as possible, they will have different results.
In the above scenario, both people are actually lifting the weights at slow speeds, because the heavy weight causes the movement to be slow. However, after weeks of training, the person who lifts with the intent to move the weight as fast as possible will actually be able to lift lighter weights faster than the other person who was following the same training program without the intent to lift as fast as possible.
I know this may be hard to believe, but this test has been done in a lab and published in a respected journal. Not only that, these results have been replicated in other studies using different subjects and in all cases the only thing that was different was that some people were told to lift the weights as quickly as possible, even though they were not actually lifting the weights quicker.
I realize that lifting weights quickly or increasing your power output may not be a priority for you, but these studies do a great job to show that your intent during exercise really does make a difference. So far I have only discussed intent with regards to resistance training, but your intent affects cardio workouts as well.
One of the main problems with distracting yourself during cardio exercise is it increases the chance that you will take it easy during your workout. If you are on a piece of equipment that is dictating the pace, such as a motorized treadmill following a preset routine, then this may not really matter. On the other hand, if you are setting the pace, such as when biking, rowing, walking, etc., keeping yourself distracted usually results in exercising at a slower and easier pace.
If you do cardio workouts just to burn a few extra calories, keeping yourself distracted probably won’t affect things too much, but the easier pace means you won’t burn as many calories and you will have to exercise longer to burn the same amount of calories as someone who is focused, so it is less efficient.
However, the reality is most people perform cardio workouts to improve their fitness level and if you are distracted and your workouts are too easy, your benefits will be significantly less than someone exercising with the intent to challenge their body to stimulate improvement.
Even if you do cardio exercise on a machine that sets the pace, distracting yourself from your workout can still have negative consequences. As with resistance training, your body naturally tries to make movements as easy and efficient as possible and when a muscle starts to fatigue, your body makes small changes to give the tired muscle(s) a break.
In terms of your workout, this means that once muscles fatigue, your form will change, often resulting in poor technique and/or posture. Occasional minor changes in form are not all that bad, but the more often they happen, the more likely you are to develop bad habits, such as learning improper movement patterns, which will carry over to your everyday activities and cause muscle or joint problems down the road.
This is especially true when you don’t pay attention to how your body is moving as you fatigue, because technique deteriorates most at the end of a workout and from a motor learning standpoint, your body remembers your last movements more than the previous ones. This is one of the reasons why you should perform exercises as technically well as possible and stop before your form significantly deteriorates.
Many of the benefits from exercise have to do with making your body function and ultimately feel better and much of the time these benefits are linked to the quality of your movements during your workouts. If your movements are sloppy or inconsistent, you won’t be able to correct poor movement patterns or fix muscle imbalances and you may make them worse or even cause new problems to develop.
It is common for people not to focus or think about their intent while exercising, but I hope this information illustrates how important focus and intent really are. From making your workouts more effective to improving your posture and technique, to altering or enhancing the specific benefits you get from your training, there are so many ways your intent can affect your results.
14 years of experience and education in health and fitness