Trainers reading texts while clients perform reps; a member talking loudly on her phone about her party exploits the night before; someone’s phone buzzing in yoga class during deep relaxation. These examples of smartphone use in gyms and studios are all too familiar. According to a recent study reported in BMC Psychiatry, about 25% of young people use their smartphones in a way that has detrimental effects on mental health and is consistent with addictive behavior.

Study author Nicola Kalk, PhD, said, “We don’t know whether it is the smartphone itself that can be addictive or the apps that people use. Nevertheless, there is a need for public awareness.” This study focused on children and young adults, but researchers note that this behavior occurs even in older people (Sohn et al. 2019).

As fitness professionals, we face the challenge of competing for our clients’ attention. People often have a difficult time focusing on the present moment and are unwilling to disconnect. Research reveals what neuroscientists and psychologists have identified about technology-addicted behavior and which activities can provide relief. Read on to gather information and tips for you and your clients.

Digital Distraction Today

Tech adoption is widespread and stretches across generations. The Pew Research Center reports that 93% of millennials, 90% of Gen Xers, 68% of baby boomers and 40% of the Silent Generation (ages 74–91) own smartphones (Vogel 2019). Tablet ownership also spans generations. According to the U.S. edition of the 2018 Global Mobile Consumer Survey, adults check their smartphones an average of 52 times per day (Deloitte 2018). Globally, 48% of adults state that they overuse their phones, but only 6% use screen time trackers (Lee et al. 2019).

What the Research Says

Research on technology addition and digital distractions

Experts have identified exercise, mindfulness, time in nature and time away from technology (i.e., the “digital detox”) as ways to moderate addictive tendencies.

Clearly, technology offers incredible benefits; fitness technology alone can enhance training and support a healthy lifestyle with heart rate monitoring, unlimited data tracking, measurement toward goal achievement, movement analysis, virtual training opportunities and more. At the same time, experts are concerned that overusing technology may affect our behavior and cognitive processes in negative ways, leading to a greater tendency to multitask; an inability to con-centrate deeply; memory strug-gles; loss of social skills; and issues related to anxiety, boredom and sleep disruption.

Whether a behavior meets the definition of addiction relates to our ability to control our use of the activity and whether lack of control interferes with conducting a normal life. Study findings on smartphone addiction, similar to internet addiction, note its impact on behavior and psychology (Liu et al. 2019). Symptoms of smartphone addiction include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • checking a phone every few minutes
  • reduced productivity
  • loss of attention
  • sleep problems
  • depression and anxiety
  • increased risk for accidents (falling, slipping, bumps, collisions, traffic accidents)

(Liu et al. 2019).

Part of the challenge is that individuals who design apps intend for them to be addictive. Cal Newport, PhD, author of Digital Minimalism (Portfolio/Penguin 2019), recommends removing apps that “make money from your attention,” eliminating those that you don’t access daily and keeping any others on your desktop.

To do this, Newport recommends a 30-day decluttering phase in which you initially remove everything optional from your phone. (He considers items “optional” unless their “temporary removal would harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your professional or personal life.”) You then assess your specific goals and values and, after 30 days, restore only those apps that you determine are essential for accomplishing identified needs.

In addition to conscious technology management, experts have identified exercise, mindfulness, time in nature and time away from technology (i.e., the “digital detox”) as ways to moderate addictive tendencies.

While most individuals do not suffer from addiction, a look at the research provides insight on how to experience relief from a 24/7 internet world.

Benefits of Exercise

In good news for fitness professionals, research confirms that exercise can be an effective antidote, both physically and mentally, for people with smartphone addiction.

A review of nine randomized controlled trials by researchers from the U.S., Canada and the People’s Republic of China showed that people addicted to smartphone use who participated in 12 weeks of exercise showed significant reductions in addiction, as measured by withdrawal symptoms, social comfort, mood changes and more (Liu et al. 2019). Notably, individuals with addiction who engaged in exercise requiring closed motor skills improved more than those who did other activities. Closed motor skills are like those performed in the weight room: self-paced, always identical and not dependent on the environment.

Researchers suggest that one reason exercise is an effective antidote to excessive technology usage is that they activate similar neurophysiological pathways in the brain. Addiction to electronic devices is associated with dopamine release, which “rewards” the behavior and encourages loss of impulse control. Studies suggest that exercise also affects reward-based brain structures. Guiney & Machado (2013) linked regular aerobic exercise with improvements in executive function and impulse control. Wang et al. (2019) showed that exercise boosts cognitive function and reduces addiction-related craving and relapse rates. Their study also found that exercise can improve mood and ease withdrawal symptoms like anxiety and depression. In this way, regular exercise participation may enable people to take time out from digital devices without experiencing excessive anxiety or boredom—the first symptoms addicts typically experience.

Editor’s note: For a more detailed discussion of how digital devices can stimulate addiction, see “Digital Distractions.”

Benefits of Mindfulness

Similar to an exercise intervention, mindfulness practice seems to be effective against addiction by improving impulse control and by relieving the anxiety associated with not having continuous phone access (Lan et al. 2018). In a pilot study, Lan and his colleagues from Fudan University in Shanghai evaluated the effectiveness of a group mindfulness program on university students with smartphone addiction. The research team found that participants who completed the 8-week program significantly reduced smartphone use compared with control group members. Other studies on people addicted to smartphone use have shown that mindfulness training can reduce impulsivity, anxiety, withdrawal symptoms and inefficiency.

Benefits of Time in Nature

In another line of research, scientists have been looking at whether spending time in nature can restore cognitive performance in people with attentional fatigue or information overload. In an analysis of 12 research studies, authors examined the effects of exposure to nature on cognitive performance. They found that cognitive performance improved in participants who spent time in nature as opposed to urban settings. Outdoor nature experiences provided the most benefit, but some benefits were observed even from viewing nature images or looking at scenery through a window. This cognitive benefit seemed to be independent of changes in positive or negative affect—i.e., happy or sad mood (Stenfors et al. 2019). More research is needed in this area.

Why is being in nature restorative? One theory suggests that it may encourage a “stilling of the mind”—that immersion in the multisensorial natural environment helps people get “out of their heads” and engage directly in a captivating experience (Stenfors et al. 2019). Some findings show that natural fractal patterns encourage wakeful relaxation (Hagerhall et al. 2008). And another theory is that exposure to natural environments with an abundance of survival resources (like water, vegetation, biodiversity) stimulates motivational systems in the

Benefits of a Timeout

A growing trend is to do a digital detox for as little as a few hours to as long as an entire vacation to manage overload from digital stimulation. Tech companies have responded to people’s interest in limiting device time by offering features like Screen Time for the iPhone or Digital Wellbeing for androids. In a study based on participant interviews and diaries, researchers examined the range of emotions experienced by travelers who participated in disconnected tourism (Cai, McKenna & Waizenegger 2019).

“We found that some participants embraced and enjoyed the disconnected experience straightaway or after struggling initially, while for others it took a little bit longer to accept the disconnected experience,” said study author Brad McKenna, PhD. “[Many also pointed out that] they were much more attentive and focused on their surroundings while disconnected, rather than getting distracted by incoming messages, notifications or alerts from their mobile apps.”

Boost Attention and Increase Engagement

Keeping clients engaged

Direct clients’ attention to changes in the body and use cues to help people notice changes with movement.

Encouraging people to disconnect when training or taking a class can provide a restorative gift. The following are research-inspired tips on how to capture attention and increase present engagement.

  • Get personal. Allow a few minutes for arriving. Greet people by name. Take a moment to connect with them individually with a few personal words, a look, a smile or—when appropriate—a touch.
  • Boost mindfulness. Begin each session with a moment of mindful awareness. Invite clients to “consciously arrive,” draw attention to their breath and scan their body. Find a 2-minute example at http://bit.ly/33QYPI4.
  • Direct action gently, but firmly. Clearly guide participants through starting exercises, with specific instructions that require focusing on the task.
  • Draw attention to feeling physical changes. Use cues to help people sense the weight of the body and notice changes with movement. Direct attention to changes in body temperature, heart rate, breath rate and sweat as the body warms up.
  • Use imagery or encourage imagination. Depending on the style of workout, invite clients to imagine themselves in a particular situation. For example, during a cycling workout, ask people to see themselves pedaling, and vividly describe the local terrain.
  • Shift focus from internal to external. In addition to coaching people to experience what they feel within, shift attention to external markers. For example, cue participants to listen to the beat of the music or, if you have props, ask them to feel the equipment in their hands.
  • Integrate nature. Take workouts outside when possible or try an outdoor warmup. Train near windows, if available. Incorporate nature imagery through posters or live screens, or add plants to the setting.
    • “At the gym everyone is still attached to their phones, [whether] it be for music, entertainment, social media or reading,” says Jill Barnes, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and ACSM spokesperson. “It is difficult to achieve the necessary exercise intensity that is required for beneficial adaptations when you are staring at a device. A few ways exercise could be more effective to combat digital distraction is if it is outdoors and [you are] engaging with the sights, sounds and undulations of the outdoor environment or playing a game or sport like tennis, soccer or basketball.”
  • Create a smartphone policy. A smartphone policy in your facility can address issues of privacy, courtesy and safety. Smartphones provide many training benefits, and a ban on them is impossible to enforce.

Finding Balance

The challenge of integrating technology into our lives is here. The sooner we find workable balances that allow us to enjoy the benefits without feeling drained, the better. For some, technological solutions work best—efficiency apps that filter and manage emails and notifications and apps that monitor or limit time. For others, regularly scheduled timeouts are most effective. We must each find our own best practices.

Remind your clients that exercise can refresh their ability to pay attention, explain how unplugging can boost present-moment engagement, and share studies that show we’re happiest when we’re actively participating in exactly what we are doing. You may find that clients are more  willing to unplug than you expected. All that’s needed is a little encouragement and support.