Workouts unplugged: Exercising without music

Using your workout time as a way to disconnect from the electronic world and reconnect with your body can improve your workout—and perhaps improve your safety. Exercising with music can help you get through a tough workout, and it might help you perform better. But skipping the tunes and other distractions during your workout might enable you to train your mind (and muscles) to be present during exercise.

For some, exercise is only tolerable with an upbeat playlist; and without it, exercise seems dull, tedious, and even more difficult to get through. However, think about your normal day: How often are you completely unplugged and focused on exactly what you’re doing? It’s really difficult to do these days: You’re listening to your car radio, wearing ear buds as you walk to your office, or keeping your eyes glued to a screen of some sort. Or you might be attached to your phone for endless hours of mindless distractions.

“But running up those hills is torture without music!” you might say. It’s true: Listening to a good song can distract you from the mental and physical strain that a hard workout can cause. But instead of trying to avoid those sensations, try to fully experience them. How do your legs feel? How does your breathing feel? Is your form helping you get up that hill? Is your face tense and strained or relaxed? These are all things that people tend to ignore and distract themselves from, rather than paying attention to them. But learning to be more in tune with how your body and mind react to physical exertion might help you cultivate the self-awareness you need to manage those responses more effectively, especially in combat and training situations.

In addition, aerobic exercises (such as biking, running, swimming, and rowing) and activities such as yoga involve continuous and repetitive movements that can create their own meditative patterns and an opportunity to engage in mindful exercise. When stress and distractions are ever-present in your day, moving meditations can provide a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of life.

Here are some things you can “tune in” to and consider when you’re exercising without music:

  • Listen to your breathing. Are you breathing comfortably and efficiently? Can you match your breath to the rhythm of your exercise? When your breathing becomes strained, practice breathing exercises to help get things back on track.
  • Focus on your body. Ask yourself, “How is my body feeling right now doing this activity?” Are your movements coordinated and efficient? How is your form? Take note of what you’re doing to correct your posture and help manage any pain or discomfort.
  • Appreciate your environment. Perhaps there’s a garden or landmark you never noticed before. Or focus on the sound of your feet hitting the pavement or the hum of the rower. How might practicing situational awareness and focusing on the present moment help in other environments?
  • Think things over. Use your exercise time to solve some problems you might be experiencing at home or work. Come up with creative solutions and ideas.

It might feel tough if you focus inwards—towards your body and your experience—during your workout. The good news is you can boost your self-awareness and train your brain and body for optimal performance in situations where music and other distractions aren’t available. Try disconnecting: You might be surprised to discover internal resources you already have to keep you running up that hill.

Resources

Bacon, C. J., Myers, T. R., & Karageorghis, C. I. (2012). Effect of music-movement synchrony on exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 52(4), 359–365. 

Bardy, B. G., Hoffmann, C. P., Moens, B., Leman, M., & Dalla Bella, S. (2015). Sound-induced stabilization of breathing and moving. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1337(1), 94–100. doi:10.1111/nyas.12650

Schücker, L., Knopf, C., Strauss, B., & Hagemann, N. (2014). An internal focus of attention is not always as bad as its reputation: How specific aspects of internally focused attention do not hinder running efficiency. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 36(3), 233–243. doi:10.1123/jsep.2013-0200

Thakare, A. E., Mehrotra, R., & Singh, A. (2017). Effect of music tempo on exercise performance and heart rate among young adults. International Journal of Physiology, Pathophysiology and Pharmacology, 9(2), 35–39.

Yamashita, S., Iwai, K., Akimoto, T., Sugawara, J., & I., I. K. (2006). Effects of music during exercise on RPE, heart rate and the autonomic nervous system. 46(3), 425–430.