February 19, 2021, by Charlotte Gauja

Phones in Fitness: Tool or Distraction?

Smartphones- a triumph of technology that can enhance our lives in many ways, but they can also – sorry, one second, someone’s just tagged me in a meme… where was I? Oh yeah, they can also be hugely distracting and potentially detrimental to our wellbeing. In fitness specifically, social media and tracking apps can be used as tools to enhance our lifestyles. But with the good comes the bad, as these features can absorb our attention until we lose sight of why we began using them in the first place.

Correlations have been found between increased smartphone use and decreased fitness levels, as in a 2013 study on college-aged students from Kent State University. But in more recent years, smartphones have evolved to be an integral part of our lifestyles, particularly with our relationship to fitness. Below, we discuss how our rectangular supercomputers can be beneficial tools as well as devices for distraction, and provide some guidance on how to maintain a healthy relationship with our phones in fitness.


Social Media

As a Tool

Social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, as well as social integration into fitness trackers, can be massively motivating. These services allow people from all over the world to share their recipes, programmes, ideas and advice for others to follow. It can open our minds up to new ways of thinking, moving and enhance our understanding of our fitness.

Furthermore, features like video calls, group chat functions, showcase the power social media can have as a tool to connect people. This has been significant during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing communities to come together safely. Staying connected with family, friends, colleagues and teammates to the extent we can through our smartphones would be inaccessible for most without social media. This alone makes it an extremely valuable tool.

As a Distraction

Social media is designed to distract us. Endless scrolling features, personalised advertising, and affirmation being used as social currency keeps us coming back. This can result in feeling overwhelmed by information, to the point where we lose focus on our fitness goals.

The convenience of smartphones allows for more instant social connectivity than ever before. This has led to a dependency on being constantly connected. The anxieties felt when we aren’t connected encourages us to check our phones more frequently. Even when we are engaged in something else, whether it’s exercising, socially interacting with someone in person, cooking, resting etc… social media can be a detrimental distraction. Netflix’s The Social Dilemma and Catherine Price’s book How to Break Up With Your Phone provide greater detail on this.


Fitness Tracking Apps

As a Tool

Fitness tracking applications such as Strava, MyFitnessPal and UoN Sport’s recently released Moves+ offer users tools to engage in their communities and track their progress and activity levels. Having a visual representation of our behaviours can encourage exercise or healthy eating, while leader boards can motivate through competition.

These apps also provide a record of data which allows users to quantify their behaviours more accurately. This could be step count or pace, providing something measurable that does not rely on memory.

As a Distraction

The key distraction of fitness tracking apps is the potential development of obsessive and compulsive habits, due to being metric centred. A survey from Digital Health Generation in 2020 found young people are particularly at risk of developing unhealthy obsessions with the results on these apps. This is because they can encourage users to compare themselves to others, being left feeling unsatisfied with their own numbers. Focusing on achieving on apps shifts the focus away from a personal fitness journey, which why most use fitness trackers to begin with.


Attentional Focus

As a Tool

Attentional focus is our ability to concentrate on one or few cues at one time. Therefore, removing external stimuli that may cause distraction can help you achieve your goal/s. The abundance of features on smartphones can offer many effective ways for us to remain focused on our fitness.

As music players, phones can motivate us through workouts by providing audible associations, especially when we create and reserve certain playlists just for exercise. Adding reminders to move on our phones can also give us much-needed nudges to stay active, providing structure that we may otherwise forget to implement into our lifestyles. And as we have discussed, video calls with others, online follow-along workouts or visual representations of our fitness-related behaviours, can help maintain our goal engagement, as these enable us to personalise what we want to give our attention to.

As a Distraction

Have you made it this far into this blog without your attentional focus being stolen away by your smartphone? You couldn’t be blamed if the answer is no, especially if you’re reading this on your device. Researchers have likened smartphones to casino slot machines in how they can stimulate the release of hormones, dopamine and cortisol. The reward centre of the brain triggers the release of dopamine which makes us feel good, achieved in the short-term from checking a notification. On the contrary, the stress hormone cortisol can be released when we become dependent on the reward but don’t receive it, such as when we see zero notifications. The more we use our devices, the more likely these hormones will be released.

Our phones crave our attention, and it’s easy for us to give it to them because of how they rewire our brains to develop dependency on reward. This becomes a distraction and potentially detrimental issue due to the volume of content our phones can contain.

Our focus is absorbed by smartphones not just while using them too. Sleep can be impacted if phones are used close to bedtimes, as the blue light tricks our brains into thinking it’s daytime. Blue light inhibits the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. On top of that, the content that can keep us overthinking into the night.

Lastly, using our phones during workouts can severely influence our physical potential. As focus is taken away, our abilities to provide sufficient physical intensity and maintain appropriate rest times can affect your training programme. Failing to follow training protocols will impact the physical adaptations, making goals more challenging.


So, are smartphones a tool or a distraction in fitness? Clearly, they have the potential to be both. Which one they’ll be for us depends on our relationships with our phones, as well our personal fitness journeys. Being aware of our attentional focus can help in how we bring our smartphones into our fitness lifestyles. This way we appreciate their value and understand the benefits of using them.

With everything said, here are a few ideas to enhance phone use as a tool in fitness:

  • silence/turn off non-urgent notifications during workouts, cooking/eating, mindfulness exercises etc…
  • set time restrictions on certain apps (via phone settings) which may be overused
  • only have devices nearby when they are actually needed: out of sight, out of mind
  • when you reach for your phone, question why: are you using it as a tool or distraction?
  • be aware by tracking your screen time to reflect on quantity and quality of phone use
  • explore older technologies like stopwatches, alarm clocks, CD players etc… which have few functional uses and won’t distract you. Just because our phones can do so much, doesn’t mean we have to use all those features. The easiest option may not always be the best for us

If you have any questions about what has been discussed, please feel free to email me at Bharat.Samra@nottingham.ac.uk

Bharat Samra

Posted in Guest BloggerHealth and Fitness