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Tuned in, tuned out

TVs are becoming as common as treadmills in gyms. That's good news for some exercisers. But concentration could suffer.

April 10, 2006|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

ONE piece of exercise equipment is becoming so popular that some people can't bear to face a workout without it: the television. Just as many people are glued to their TVs at home, so they are at the gym, intently focused on CNN or "American Idol."

Almost every gym offers some form of TV entertainment, and the more magnificent the club, the better the options. Uber-complexes feature individual screens integrated into cardio machines, allowing exercisers to watch whatever they like. Others have banks of wall or ceiling-mounted screens, some offering headsets so users can listen to particular shows.

More clubs are buying or contemplating buying equipment with integrated television screens, and many even have televisions in strength training areas, where concentration -- especially around free weights -- is critical.

Wireless headsets are now available, allowing gym members to wander while listening to one of 14 digital audio programs.

Soon there may be video iPods able to interface with a club's system, predicts Kevin Fee, a vice president with Broadcast Vision Entertainment, an Agoura Hills company providing entertainment to health clubs. Eventually, members may be able to select from a bank of movies and programs and toggle between those and wellness data such as heart rate and blood pressure.

Fun, sure, but this may not be the best way to wade through a workout.

Survey the cardio area of a gym and invariably a few people will be engrossed in a show to the point that they're going through the motions of exercising -- slowly pedaling the elliptical trainer, inching along on the treadmill -- and barely sweating or breathing hard.

Certainly, it's more productive than napping, most fitness experts agree. But it may sell exercisers short, making them wonder why they haven't seen significant improvements in their bodies after weeks or months at the gym.

"I do think that some people get tied up with watching Dr. Phil, and the intensity will typically be lacking," says Richard Little, vice president of the Cooper Aerobic Center in Dallas. "What I've seen at health clubs is that before you know it, their workout is very lackadaisical and they're not exercising at the appropriate level."

But clubs need to stay competitive with the market and please members, many of whom are tech-savvy and have the latest gadgets such as TiVo, mega-screen plasma TVs and video cellphones.

More fundamentally, exercise, for many, isn't too enthralling -- especially for someone trudging along monotonously on a cardio machine.

"One of the problems ... is trying to keep people in the program," says Kent Johnson, chairman of the kinesiology department at Lipscomb University in Nashville. "Attrition is a huge problem."

That is why, up to a point, Johnson is not too bothered about this fitness multi-tasking. "Anything that attracts people to an exercise program is helpful," he says.

Even low levels of physical exertion can have significant health benefits, says Carl Foster, professor of exercise and sport science and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse -- including lowered blood pressure, reduced body fat and improved cardiovascular function.

"In the scope of what's going on in America, moving is what's important," he says.

Studies do show that television can help people stick with an exercise program. In a paper published in 2001 in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, about 100 exercisers were divided into groups. Some were given the distraction of television or music. Others were told to exercise without distractions and either concentrate on how they felt or simply to exercise with no other agenda.

Those given distractions had significantly lower dropout rates compared with those who didn't, the study found. They also exercised longer and showed improved cardiorespiratory function.

This suggests that those who are new to exercise need something to divert them from the pain and discomfort, at least in the first six months when dropout rates are high, says Jim Annesi, author of the study and director of wellness advancement at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta. But for the more experienced exerciser, or someone whose weight loss or fitness goals are more defined, there may be fewer advantages to constantly fixating on a TV screen. Ideally, people ought to be in tune with their bodies while exercising, staying aware of their intensity level, heart rate and perspiration.

And some people have to do a lot more than moderate exercise to lose weight and get in shape, says John Jakicic, chairman of the department of health and physical activity at the University of Pittsburgh. For them, he says, "You've got to push hard or push long in order to see changes that you want."

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