Deaf to Danger: The Perils of Earbuds

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By now, most us have learned to curb the urge to update our status, check our e-mail, and fire off "I'm running late!" texts while behind the wheel. But we still zone out to music or fiddle with our iThings while walking, jogging, or biking. The problem? Distracted exercising may come with risks similar to those of distracted driving: Last year, for the first time in four years, pedestrian deaths rose, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. And experts are blaming our beloved, never-leave-home-without-'em gadgets.

As a result, some state lawmakers are trying to crack down on exercise multitasking. In New York, for instance, a pending bill would make it illegal for walkers and joggers to use any kind of electronic device while crossing the street. Measures in Oregon and Virginia, if passed, would fine bicyclists as much as $90 for riding under the influence of technology. While these proposals may not become enforceable laws (unlike with distracted driving, you're usually putting only yourself at risk), they make one thing clear: Tuning out during a workout can be very hazardous to your health.

Hear No Evil

Hit any busy jogging path or park and you'll have an easier time counting the people who aren't wearing earbuds than those who are. Thirty-five percent of WH readers told us in an online poll that when exercising outdoors, they always listen to music--and that their tunes are as essential as their sneaks and sports bra.

Music isn't distracting only because it siphons off your ability to hear other noises like a car or--super scary--an attacker approaching, says Diana Deutsch, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California at San Diego who researches the perception of sound. "Music floods the brain and takes over your thought processes," she explains.

"You concentrate on the lyrics, or the music evokes certain memories or sends you into a daydream." Some scientists speculate that music may even have the power to dampen your sight. "The tempo can interfere with the rate at which your brain perceives images that are passing by you, which could trip you up," says Deutsch. In short, music draws your attention away from what you're doing and increases your risk of literally running into a dangerous situation like an oncoming bus, a malicious stranger, or a lamppost.

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Press Pause

But your peppy playlist doesn't just compromise your safety; it can also interfere with the quality of your workout. "Many people exercise while listening to music because they don't want to think about how uncomfortable they feel," says Stan Beecham, Psy.D., a sport psychologist in Roswell, Georgia.

"But being distracted severs the connection between your body and mind, so you're no longer tuned in to the subtle signals your body relays, like when it's ready to speed up and when it needs to slow down."

Music stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response, says Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a sport psychologist at Brunel University in London and author of Inside Sport Psychology. So the jolt you get when a hearty beat like Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" comes on is very real. When timed right, it could give you the thrust you need to hammer up a hill or cross a finish line. But starting a run with that song could cause you to overexert yourself and then fizzle out faster than the Swiftenhaal affair. On the other hand, music that's too mellow may prevent you from pushing yourself to the next level, says Michael Sachs, Ph.D., a professor of kinesiology at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Muting your brain to your body's reactions can also increase your risk for injury. Suppose you tweak an ankle or knee. "You're not going to be able to pick up on pain sensations from a minor injury if you're zoned out to music," says Sachs. Instead of stopping, you might run, pedal, or skate through it until the pain becomes so severe that it intrudes on your music. "By then, the injury may be more serious than if you had stopped and addressed the initial ache immediately," he says.

Can't bear even a trial separation from your jams? With just a few simple adjustments, you can make your workouts safer and more effective while still rocking out (see "Please Don't Stop the Music," right). But if you're ready to give wireless workouts a go, check out "Your Workout: Unplugged" on page 68. You actually may start to prefer the symphony of your surroundings.

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Your Workout: Unplugged

Ready to sweat in silence? Put these tips into action and you'll get even more from your workout while keeping yourself entertained.

Tap Into Your Breath

Whether you're running, biking, or walking, try matching your inhalations and exhalations with what your feet are doing. For instance, while running, inhale over four footfalls (right, left, right, left) and exhale for the same length.

"Counting will keep your mind occupied but not distracted," says Stan Beecham, Psy.D.

"At the same time, you'll be taking slower, longer, deeper breaths." This pumps oxygen into your bloodstream, which feeds your muscles and boosts endurance.

Do Fartleks (Swedish for "Speed Play")

"This is the adult version of 'I'll race you to the mailbox,'_" explains Matt Fitzgerald, author of Brain Training for Runners. Here's what to do: Periodically kick up your speed from one landmark--a tree or stop sign--to another. Try sprinkling eight fartleks into a 45-minute workout. "The hard work of sprinting won't feel as difficult because the end of each burst will always be in sight," says Fitzgerald.

Scan Your Body

Starting with your right foot, notice what it's doing. Is it turning in? Is it turning out? Now focus on your left foot. "The goal is for your body to be as symmetrical as possible. You want to use both sides evenly," says Fitzgerald. Work your way up your calves, knees, hips, shoulders, arms, neck, and head. Notice how your body feels. If you encounter any tension, imagine those muscles releasing.

Play Mind Games

Keep a mental list of the different out-of-state license plates that go by or count how many squirrels you see. If the urge to listen to music hits, sing to yourself. When you need to stop and cross a street, you'll have much more control over the music that's playing in your head than if you were using an iPod.

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Please Don't Stop the Music

If the thought of running without Cee Lo, Usher, or Bono wipes out your motivation to lace up, use these strategies so you can tune in without completely tuning out.

Make a Playlist

Hit play before you start moving and don't touch your iPod again. Fussing with your music removes yet another sense--sight--which makes things even more dangerous. If you need to make a quick adjustment (Katy Perry…again?), stop moving.

Upgrade Your Earphones

Many women run with one earphone in their ear and the other tucked under a bra strap, thinking it's safer than using both buds. But that's not the case, since the brain relies on both ears to determine which direction a noise is coming from. A solution: Auria earphones ($20 to $60, auria .com). They sit on the outer part of your ear without blocking your ear canal, so you can still hear ambient noises.

Use As Needed

You can get a rush from a song or playlist the first few times you queue it up. But listen too often and you can become desensitized to it, says sport psychologist Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D. Try using music only for the most challenging parts of your workout. Karageorghis recommends songs with 120 to 145 beats per minute (BPM).

"The level of stimulation this range provides creates just the right degree of arousal," he says.

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