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6 Ways to Use Your Phone Less That Will Strengthen Your Body

From text neck to time wasted staring at a screen, your body will thank you for taking a break from the smartphone.

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Many people use smartphones to track fitness and strength training. But as Manhattan-based personal trainer Doug Joachim puts it, “Tracking apps are useful for quantifying one’s baseline. Initially they act as motivators, but the effect often fades over time.”

Personal trainers also note a kind of reverse placebo effect or what they call a nocebo. “Some individuals reward themselves with extra food when their app tells them they met a goal,” Joachim continued. “Many times this reward negates their effort.”

To counteract the “nocebo” effect, use your exercise regimen as a way of connecting with your surroundings and friends. Developing exercise habits that build bridges to the real world has the benefit of bringing about stronger mental acuity even as you improve your physical well-being.

In the end these are much more significant goals to realize than merely hitting the goal set for you by an app.

Regular exercise indisputably improves your health. According to the Mayo Clinic, regularly running or walking for 30 minutes can reduce your blood pressure by 4 to 9 points. The importance of this can’t be understated. The Global Burden of Disease Study, the most comprehensive international analysis of epidemiological data ever completed, concluded that the number one risk factor for death in the world is high blood pressure. And of course there are many other reasons to exercise regularly, ranging from improved mental health to better sleep to reduced risk of cancer and diabetes.

But exercising with a phone can work at cross purposes to the health benefits of exercise. Checking email repeatedly has been found to raise blood pressure in subjects an average of 5 to 10 points. And increasingly, research is revealing that goal-setting fitness apps tend to lead us toward obsessive-compulsive “streaks” that are often out of sync with the needs and capabilities of our bodies. We push ourselves to meet trumped-up goals, injure ourselves, and short-circuit our fitness plan before it can be put into full effect.

Practice Exercising Without Your Phone

Instead of looking at your exercise routine as a phone-regulated striving toward a goal, view it instead as part of your meditation practice. Most meditation retreats include periods of walking meditation as a way of bringing mindfulness off the cushion and out into the world. To experience exercise as a kind of walking meditation, take note of your breath as you would in sitting meditation. If your mind wanders from the breath, remind yourself, gently and without judgment, to return to the breath.

If you’re going out for a walk or run alone, consider installing an app like Freedom that will block distracting time-wasting apps but still allow you all the emergency functionality of having your phone.

Work Out with a Friend Instead of an App

Working out with a friend instead of an app is certainly more rewarding emotionally. But trainers and athletes also find considerable performance benefits. As Arnold Schwarzenegger put it in his autobiography, “a good training partner pushes you to handle more poundage and gives you incentive to grind out more reps per set. . . Workouts are more fun with a partner as well as more competitive . . . you challenge each other.”

Practice Curating Responsibly

One of the things that distorts our exercise regimen and attitudes toward our own bodies is an obsessive curating of self-image. Editing images of the self online creates unrealizable expectations, especially for young adults. This leads us toward poor goal-setting and possible injury.

Limit your self-curation both for your own sake and for the sake of the younger people in your life who are particularly susceptible. Try to go for a given period of time without editing photos of yourself or your loved ones. Examine how you feel after this self-curation diet.

Photo: Getty Images

Look Up

Chiropractors now recognize a phenomenon called “text neck,” caused by looking down at your phone too much. Text neck can lead to an array of symptoms ranging from a chronic, nagging pain to sharp, severe upperback muscle spasms. If a cervical nerve becomes pinched, pain and possibly neurological symptoms can radiate down your arm and into your hand.

Take Up a New Hobby, Like Knitting

Knitting improves fine motor skills, sharpens the mind, and can actually reduce the incidence of arthritis and digital tremors. After a little practice the average knitter can make a 4 foot [1.2 m] scarf in about 8 hours (though of course speed depends on needle and yarn size). What could you do if after mastering the basics you made knitting your regular practice? Ten years of device-free time would give you 14,000 hours, enough time for you to wrap Liberty Island with your handiwork in the style of the artist Christo. In fact, you’d even have enough time left to knit Lady Liberty her own scarf. But seriously—in a 2011 study, researchers at the Mayo Clinic interviewed a random sample of 1,321 people ages seventy to eighty-nine about the cognitive activities they engaged in late in life. The study, published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, found that those who engaged in crafts like knitting and crocheting had a diminished chance of developing cognitive impairment and memory loss.

Fix It, Don’t Get It Fixed

Oftentimes we hire out the solving of our problems to others in order to create more time for ourselves. But in the age of the smartphone, we end up using those reclaimed hours to stare at our devices. In the process, we waste time and opportunity. Fixing things ourselves improves manual dexterity, focuses attention, and saves money.

Reprinted from Goodbye Phone, Hello World by Paul Greenberg with permission by Chronicle Books, 2020