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What If I’m Too Distracted to Exercise?

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty Images

Hot Bod is a weekly exploration of fitness culture and its adjacent oddities.

I can be pretty into distraction. Distraction is a tangent into something unexpected! I once read distraction described as a will to “obey some rhythmic impulse at the heart of all happening.” What a noble and romantic pursuit that’s not even crass enough to be called a pursuit.

But distraction has been causing some infuriating delays for me recently. Distraction is starting to make any sort of exercise I attempt into an unwieldy daylong time suck. One might think, if I put on a 45-minute dance cardio video at precisely 8 a.m., I would be finished at precisely 8:45 a.m. This has never been true. This video will sputter on, for minutes at a time, sometimes for hours.

“One thing I’ve heard from people is that they’re doing like four different home workouts a day, but for short periods of time. They tune in to all these different Instagram Live videos,” Jessie Zapotechne tells me over a video chat. Each week, dozens of athletes check in with Zapotechne, who is the performance coach for Adidas Runners in New York City as well as an art therapist. “There’s no one watching you do it, so you maybe do ten minutes, and then you eat some chips while you watch them work out. Which I’ve done! It’s a weird time where motivation is so up and down.”

Zapotechne gestures to her studio apartment behind her, outlining her own struggles. “The temptation is there. You wash dishes, you listen to a podcast, you multitask. And —” she pauses like this is the worst part: “you’re probably doing that all day.”

Exercising, like many pursuits now, seems to blend into everything else: an amorphous soup in which a work call is sweeping the floor, and sweeping the floor is making soup stock, and making soup stock is nurturing a beautiful friendship, and nurturing a beautiful friendship is sending links of tie-dye sweatshirts that cost a great deal of money, and assessing moody splattered sweatshirts is also trying to unknot your right oblique while lying on a foam roller.

On a very efficient day, it takes me an hour to do a 45-minute routine. When the videos drag past a certain point, they start to acquire the atmosphere of after-school detention. Why am I not permitted to leave?! How can time last so long? What did I do to deserve this?! I howl inside my head. The reason, I now realize, is perpetual tardiness. With workouts, I’ll begin a video and then realize I still have to put on my shoes. Four minutes later, I’m standing on a chair, one untied sneaker on, changing a light bulb in the closet. I just can’t quit this stop-and-start routine, doing high-knees before folding laundry, then settling into a plank to check my email. It’s a routine of quick energy bursts and protracted pauses to do chores and work.

This method is actually, in a way, the principle behind high-intensity interval training, a fitness strategy that’s dominated aerobic exercise for the past decade. Especially after finding that vigorous, short bouts of exercise counterintuitively prepare the body for better endurance performance, HIIT has entirely shifted the way the exercise is studied. This has been the work of Dr. Martin Gibala, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University. Gibala tells me that research about HIIT has been so influential that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ new guidelines for physical activity eliminated their previous requirement that exercise last at least ten minutes at a time. “Every little bit really does count,” Gibala tells me, even if it adds up by increments of 30 (super-robust, super-strapping) seconds.

But certain exercises aren’t so friendly to darting off. If you keep leaping up from a plank to detangle cobwebs from your ceiling fan, I believe you are doing an exercise called a burpee plus broom work. Dr. Paul Arciero, a professor of health and human physiological sciences at Skidmore, says for muscular strength (like holding a provocative yoga pose) extending the amount of time in the exercise is what develops muscular endurance. But for muscular power (like peppy high jumps) putting more time into each high jump is irrelevant. “If it’s an explosive, short burst of movement, then it’s not to your benefit to do each move over a longer period of time.” Basically, the high jump lasts as long as it lasts. You can’t really stretch it out.

It might not be your legs and arms but rather your grumpiness that desires longer stretches of exercising. “Endurance is very helpful with mood state,” Arciero says. “Longer periods of time exercising releases those healthy brain neurotransmitters that put you in a place of happiness, contentment, and euphoria.” He mentions the activation of the body’s endocannabinoid system, which affects mood, inflammation, and pain and sounds pretty chill. Research shows these receptors are activated during exercise, but only after some sustained endurance.

To add a super-fun productivity twist to all this, Dr. Jennifer Heisz tells me that very short bursts of exercise can actually help your focus on non-aerobic tasks. So you may think these sneaky little fitness breaks are personal maintenance, but they’re very good for your work. Heisz is a cognitive psychologist at McMaster and recently conducted an exercise study with students there. “During a 60-minute lecture, which could be a Zoom call, where they had to stay focused, we interweaved three five-minute breaks.” Compared to students who had no breaks or who had breaks playing Bejeweled (!!) on the computer, students who exercised during the five-minute breaks were the most focused during the lecture. “And these exercises were very corona-friendly,” she says, “jumping jacks and high-knees. Very suited for a small space.”

It’s the small space that’s the problem. Or really, the same space. Working out at home — right next to your personal dust — sometimes feels batshit. What am I doing, pretending I need to lift these five-pound weights when I could be actually clearing out boxes from the storage space that’s six feet away? Why am I doing seven frantic minutes of jumping jacks rather than darting around the yard with the dog? In quarantine, all parts of our life are visible at all times, and the rhythmic impulse of my heart wants to attend to everything right now.

Learning that a scattershot approach to attending to the body was actually super-unexpectedly effective and great for productivity felt like a betrayal. Here I thought that my tugs of distraction were animal and uncontrolled and impetuous! Now that I know these quick bursts are actually an efficient and streamlined way to exercise, I don’t feel so willful and fun and frivolous by going wherever my body’s mysterious impulses lead me. But my body recently has just been leading me to a dust pile in the corner next to the standing lamp, so maybe my impulses were never really that willful and fun and frivolous anyway.

What If I’m Too Distracted to Exercise?