Fitness apps: Are we exercising to distraction?

Many of us can’t get through a workout without tunes or telly to make it less boring. And there’s nothing wrong with that, says Simon Usborne
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For some reason Direct Line, the insurance people, spent last night inviting north Londoners to watch bits of films while working out.

Its one-off “cinigym” swapped seats for treadmills, screening an hour-long montage “designed to enhance, inspire and motivate” (it included the Rocky “steps” scene and the Indiana Jones boulder dash).

It’s PR balls, of course, but a worthwhile opportunity to consider the benefits of distracted exercise. What power, if any, does music have to enhance your health? Lots, according to a booming fitness sub-industry convincing us to exercise with a soundtrack. NOW Running is the latest app to offer workout playlists, taking tracks from the NOW That’s What I Call Music! catalogue to match the length and proposed intensity of your run.

Anyone can create and share playlists at, an app that uses Spotify to pull songs that come with with a beats-per-minute value. “Sex on Fire” (153bpm) tops its current chart, ahead of “Harder to Breathe” and “Pump it.” All of which makes exercise less boring but science suggests music can do more besides. For a 2008 study, British researchers put 12 students on stationary bicycles while listening to pop music and riding at a comfortable pace for 30 minutes. In three separate sessions, the music tempo was varied, to slow, normal, and fast. Riders, whose speed, heart rates and power outputs were measured, were not told about the changes. But sure enough they rode faster and harder as the music sped up, dropping off when it slowed. As researchers wrote, when “the music was played faster, the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort” despite not necessarily realising the subtle, 10 per cent changes in speed. Nike saw this potential in 2006 when it commissioned LCD Soundsystem to create the perfect workout track. The US band made 45:33, a 45-minute work with various tempo changes.

A separate study has proved the distracting benefits of music for athletes preparing to compete. Basketball players prone to being affected by stress in shootouts performed better after listening first to upbeat music. Last month, Andy Murray reported that 90 per cent of tennis players use music before games to “get in the zone”. Sadly, he added, for him that includes the works of Ed Sheeran.