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Does Music Make You Exercise Harder?

September 09, 2010 | 43,403 views
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listening to music during workoutIn a recent study, researchers asked 12 college students to ride stationary bicycles while listening to music. They were given a selection of six songs with a range of tempos.

During one session, the six songs ran at their normal tempos. In other sessions, the tempo was slowed by 10 percent or increased by 10 percent. Their activity changed significantly in response.

When the tempo was slowed, their pedaling diminished in rate, their heart rates fell, and their mileage dropped. When the tempo was increased, they produced more power with each pedal stroke and increased their pedaling rate, and their heart rates rose.

The New York Times reports:

“The interplay of exercise and music is fascinating and not fully understood, perhaps in part because, as a science, it edges into multiple disciplines, from physiology to biomechanics to neurology.

No one doubts that people respond to music during exercise ... Just how music impacts the body during exercise, however, is only slowly being teased out by scientists.”

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

The power and influence of music is being studied on several fronts, and its impact on human performance is nothing short of astounding. From helping you improve your math skills to getting your legs pumping and entraining your heart to beat normally, music is not to be underrated.

Exercise really is one of the single most important lifestyle choices you can make to improve your health. I have been exercising for 43 years and for the first 20 or so I exercised without audio. For the next 20 I listened to lectures that really helped me learn natural medicine and many personal development principles.

But more recently, especially since I have been using the high intensity Sprint 8 exercise program, I find that music is an amazingly effective motivation to work out at a higher level.

It has a profound difference on how intensely I work out. The key with Sprint 8 is to exercise hard enough to reach your maximum heart rate, which is roughly 220 minus your age. With hard work and good music, I actually have been able to reach 171, which is 7 over my calculated maximum.

I think if I switch my music around, eventually I might get it up to 175.

Music Links Your Brain and Body

The New York Times article above discusses several really interesting developments in the area of how music impacts physical performance.

No one can explain the exact mechanics of how music achieves what it does, but researchers consistently find that music has a major impact on exertion during exercise – and then some.

Motivation appears to be one factor. Different types of musical scores elicit different emotions, such as joy or melancholy for example, and certain types of music can motivate you to run faster, or keep going even though you're fatigued.

However, a more intriguing connection may be the fact that you're more or less "hardwired" to respond to musical beats. The New York Times explains:

"It may be that… your body first responds to the beat, even before your mind joins in; your heart rate and breathing increase and the resulting biochemical reactions join with the music to exhilarate and motivate you to move even faster."

And why not?

Music has been with us since the dawn of mankind, and may even date back further than the dawn of the spoken word.

Choose the Right Tempo for Your Workout

The study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports had a dozen college students ride stationary bikes while listening to six different songs, played at their normal tempo. They then compared the physical performance when the same songs were played at 10 percent faster, and 10 percent slower, tempo.

Not surprisingly, when the music's tempo slowed, the subjects' exertion level reduced as well. And when the tempo was increased, their performance followed suit.

The New York Times writes:

"… paradoxically, they did not find the workout easier. Their sense of how hard they were working rose 2.4 percent. The up-tempo music didn't mask the discomfort of the exercise. But it seemed to motivate them to push themselves.

As the researchers wrote, when "the music was played faster, the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort."

So while your body may be simply responding to the beat on a more or less subconscious level, the type and tempo of the music you choose while working out may also influence your conscious motivation. And together, the synchronization of moving to the beat along with being motivated by the music itself allows it to do its magic…

Music and Focus

Another study mentioned by the New York Times was published last year. It discovered that listening to music could prevent basketball players from "choking" while under pressure to perform.

They theorize that the music allowed the players a new focus; a distraction, "from themselves, from their audience and from thinking about the physical process of shooting," which freed their bodies to perform more automatically, without nagging interference from their own thought processes.

Music Can Also Improve Verbal Fluency

Interestingly, while studies have shown that exercising alone has the capability to improve your mood and increase the speed of your decision-making process, listening to music while exercising has been shown to improve verbal fluency as well.

A 2003 study published in the journal Heart Lung found that listening to music while exercising boosted cognitive levels and verbal fluency skills in people diagnosed with coronary artery disease.

Coronary artery disease has been linked to a decline in cognitive abilities. In this study, signs of improvement in the verbal fluency areas more than doubled after listening to music compared to that of the non-music session.

This study did not offer any explanations for these findings. However, it would seem reasonable to think that it has something to do with the automatic interplay between your body and brain when you hear music, which might allow your brain to process language easier, just as it can help improve math skills.

Whatever the mechanism, adding music to your workout routine with the hopes of boosting your verbal fluency surely won't do any harm.

Exercise with Music: A Potent Stress-Reducing, Health-Promoting Duo!

Exercise is perhaps one of the most effective stress-reduction strategies there is. And, with or without exercise, music is also a great mood regulator in its own right.

Loud, upbeat music generally has a stimulating, energizing effect, whereas slow music can act as a sedative and have a calming, soothing impact on your mental and emotional state.

Another exceptional, and more scientific, tool to help you dramatically reduce the stress that is a prime contributor to all forms of disease, while maximizing your awareness and potential for growth, is the Insight audio CD. Many of the patients at my clinic have received enormous benefits from it.

Layered beneath the soothing sounds of natural rain is a "binaural beat," which can help you achieve dramatically powerful states of altered consciousness.

Massage therapists and other body workers are experts at using music to the benefit of their clients, creating a complete experience of quieting and calming both body and mind. The music's rhythm, melody and tonal quality can also put you in that "special place of peace," where healing can be achieved faster.

And this healing effect can be impressive.

Other Health Benefits of Music

Harp music, for example, can be particularly helpful for people who have heart trouble, or suffer from pain or anxiety. Harp music has also been found to have benefits for premature infants. The Bedside Harp web site lists an impressive number of studies on harp music's impact on human health and well-being.

Interestingly, Harvard researchers have shown that the rhythms of healthy hearts may be similar to those found in classical music, and that certain rhythms (such as that of harp music) can entrain your heart to beat more normally.

In fact, Harvard has a nice web site dedicated to Music and medicine where you can read more.

Other studies from the early 1990s concluded that music significantly lowered the heart rates and calmed and regulated the blood pressures and respiration rates of patients who had undergone surgery.

Music therapy has also been shown to:

  • Improve motor skills in patients recovering from strokes
  • Boost your immune system
  • Improve mental focus
  • Help control pain
  • Create a feeling of well-being
  • Reduce anxiety

Using Music as an Antidepressant "Drug"

One 2008 study published in The Journal of Clinical Nursing found that pregnant women listening to soothing music showed significant reductions in stress, anxiety and depression.

The researchers concluded that,

"The findings can be used to encourage pregnant women to use this cost-effective method of music in their daily life to reduce their stress, anxiety and depression."

Just more evidence that some of the simplest things in the world can benefit your health in profound ways.

Since depression, general stress and anxiety are very common issues facing many pregnant women, this is excellent advice, especially in light of the ever increasing use of antidepressant drugs during pregnancy.

Although some studies claim that using antidepressants during pregnancy does not raise your risk of having a baby with birth defects, others have shown that they can cause severe rebound effects in your baby. Clearly drugs are rarely the best choice for pregnant women who are depressed. There are so many better options – music being one of them.

And again, combine music with exercise, and you have a very potent strategy to combat depression without resorting to mind-altering drugs.

This goes for pregnant women as well, as exercise is clearly indicated as being beneficial during pregnancy, for both mother and child.

How Can Your Workout Benefit From Music?

As stated earlier, exercising to music has more benefits than just making your workout more fun. In another New York Times article, published in 2008, titled: They're playing my song: Time to work out, sport psychologist Costas Karageorghis explained how listening to music while working out can:

  1. Reduce your perception of how hard you are working by about 10 percent during low-to-moderate intensity activity.
  2. Profoundly influence your mood; elevating the positive aspects, such as vigor, excitement and happiness, and reducing depression, tension, fatigue, anger and confusion.
  3. Be used to set an appropriate warm-up, workout, and cool-down pace.
  4. Be used to overcome fatigue, and control your emotions if you're in a competition.

Creating the Ultimate Exercise Playlist

Committing yourself to a regular exercise routine is just as important as following a nutritious eating program. Taking into consideration these positive benefits from music and exercising, you just might want to add some tunes to your workout.

Not sure how to select the right music for your routine?

Lifehacker comes to the rescue with an interesting article on how to create the ultimate exercise playlist. Since most of us now have personal MP3 players (and many types of cell phones can serve this function), this is a simple way to provide consistently upbeat music to motivate you.

Remember if you are doing the Sprint 8 exercise, you really are only exercising intensely for a total of four minutes, which may only be one song. So ideally it would be best to queue up your favorite inspirational songs.

Lifehacker also recommends selecting music with 120 to 140 beats per minute to optimize your exercise, and offers a short video on how to determine the beats per minute of any particular song, along with links to software that can also help.