While it’s true that a Stephen King book can make hearts race, churning through “The Shining” generally doesn’t qualify as a cardiovascular workout. Not in print, anyway.
So what about listening to an audiobook version of the horror classic during a run? Joe Flood, for one, says the spoken word imbues him with an inexplicable desire to keep going.
“Most days it can be a struggle to get myself out the door, or to run that extra mile,” says the 30-year-old writer and college archery coach who lives in South Dakota’s Badlands. “If I’m wrapped up in a good book, though, the time and the miles just seem to flow along with the narrative.”
There are now legions of such long-distance readers who, data suggest, prefer burning calories to turning pages.
Nearly one-quarter of all audiobook buyers reported listening while exercising, according to a recent survey by the Audio Publishers Association, an industry trade group. Sales of audiobooks jumped 13% last year, to $1.2 billion, said the study, released earlier this month. Downloads to mobile devices were up 30%, accounting for 54% of all sales.
“We’ve found the vast majority of our readers are multitaskers. They listen while they do something else,” says Michele Cobb, the association’s president. Such efficiency, though, can come at a price. While “reading” on the run can make exercise more entertaining, combining the two activities might hamper both physical performance and mental comprehension.
In an AT&T commercial aired during the 2012 London Olympics, U.S. marathoner Ryan Hall strode across miles of countryside while listening to “The Odyssey”—in its entirety—on audiobook. In reality, the fastest American marathoner says Homer would make a horrendous running partner.
“I actually find it pretty challenging to pay attention to books on tape while running,” says Mr. Hall. “It’s great for an easy or slow pace,” he says, by which he means 6½- to 7-minute miles. “But if I try to run hard”—that is, speeds approaching his 4:45-minute-per-mile marathon pace—”I cannot focus enough on the book to absorb anything I’m hearing.”
Some scientists are leaning into the idea that running and reading don’t necessarily mix well. “When you do two things at once there is always a cost,” says Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who researches the impact of multi-taking on the brain. Though the runner may not realize it consciously, his or her mind constantly switches back and forth between the two tasks—a ping-pong effect that might even be hazardous to a runner’s health.
While researchers haven’t specifically focused on the effects of both activities, other forms of multitasking offer clues as to possible detriments. For example, in studying how cellphone conversations impact drivers, Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, found that as soon as someone starts listening to a voice on the phone, their skills behind the wheel stall. “The brain activity that was there for driving decreases by as much as 37%, says Dr. Just. The professor, whose study was published in the journal Brain Research in 2008, also used special MRI scanners to monitor people operating a driving simulator. “The illusion that both tasks are relatively automatic can be dangerous,” he says. As for long-distance reading, “it wouldn’t be an issue for a runner on a treadmill at a gym, but perhaps on a trail through the mountains,” he says.
Listening to an audiobook is also very different from listening to music, which has been shown to improve athletic performance, says David-Lee Priest, a psychology researcher at Britain’s University of East Anglia. However, it depends on the music—and the athlete. “The effort to comprehend lyrics in some instances can slow reaction time in much the same way an audiobook would,” says Dr. Priest. “However, there are upsides: The more someone is occupied with the semantic content of the lyrics, the less capacity there is for sensations of displeasure and fatigue,” he says. When listening to audiobooks, as opposed to music, “we may also lose the metronome effect of the music which helps us keep time, and the stimulative and motivational qualities of the music which help us run faster,” he says. Under that scenario, Charles Dickens might slow runners to the worst of times. But some say that’s beside the point.
“I’m just trying to get myself off the couch,” says James Barber, 49, a music producer and technology consultant who lives in Atlanta and takes in a typical 16-hour crime novel on audiobook every few weeks. “So I made a rule: I’m not allowed to listen when I am not running,” he says.
For Mr. Flood, a novel’s tension and action can also influence the senses during a run. “When I was listening to ‘Game of Thrones’ and somebody was being chased through the woods by a group of marauding knights, it was fun to be running through the rolling prairies here,” says Mr. Flood. Alberto Manguel, author of “A History of Reading,” says that having someone read a book aloud during another activity is a tradition that dates back to ancient civilization. “But the idea of reading as a distraction from something tedious begins, I think, in the late Middle Ages,” he says. “When women would get together to spin thread, they’d ask the men to read to entertain them while they worked.”
And in the 19th century, Cuban cigar rollers would sacrifice a portion of their salary to hire a “lector” to regale them in the factory. Alexandre Dumas’s “‘The Count of Monte Cristo” was so popular among the workers that they wrote to the author in 1870 asking permission to name a cigar after the novel’s hero.
Mr. Dumas let them run with the idea.
From: The Wall Street Journal