Health and Fitness

The Science of Music and Exercise

Walk in the doors of any gym, and what are you going to hear? Probably some upbeat background music. Even with that, you’re going to see a lot of people wearing headphones, listening to their own music as they exercise. People get passionate about their workout music! At Underwater Audio, we love hearing from people who have used our products to improve their exercise. The reviews on our product pages are sprinkled with stories of people who, using one of our iPods, swam further or longer than they thought they could. But is it all in our heads? Does music actually have a significant effect when we exercise? We took a look at the research to find out what measurable effects music has on exercise. At the end of the article, we’ll discuss specific ways you can use music to get the most out of your workout.

Music can get you ready to go

An iconic image of the 2016 Summer Olympics was Michael Phelps wearing his headphones prior to swimming his races. Is there something to that? What effect can music have on you as you prepare for physical exertion? Scientists refer to it as “arousal regulation,” and it means that music has a measurable effect on, among other things, your heart rate and breathing.

Not Michael Phelps. (Author: Robert de Bock)

Psych Up

It’s not a direct correlation; listening to Paper Planes by M.I.A. doesn’t make your heart rate jump to 170 beats per minute to match the tempo. But, it probably will make your heart beat a little faster. If you’re heading for an intense cardio workout, that can be a good thing. Listening to music that indicates the intensity of the activity you’re about to begin can prepare you, mentally and physically, to jump right in.

Psych Down

Just as fast music can psych you up and get your heart beating, slower music can calm you down. Do you get overly anxious before performing or competing? The right music can help you keep your cool. Music can have a similar effect to drugs in managing anxiety levels, which can actually mean lower levels of cortisol in the brain.

Music helps you Dissociate

That may sound odd, or even like a bad thing, but “dissociation” is one of the significant effects of listening to music during exercise, and it’s actually pretty fantastic. Exercise takes effort, right? There’s discomfort; sometimes it even approaches pain. But it’s good for us to push our limits. When our bodies are sending us signals that our brain interprets as, “Man, I’d be having so much more fun on the couch with a bag of potato chips right now,” the dissociation music provides can help.
A lot of scientific studies addressing music and exercise talk about the perceived rate of exertion, or how hard participants feel like they have to try to do the tasks the researchers have asked of them. They get different results with different levels of intensity, but at lower and moderate levels of exercise, listening to music does indeed make you think you’re not trying as hard. It provides a distraction, decreasing your negative experiences while exercising, and increasing your positive experiences.

From an old article at The Sport Journal, while listening to music during exercise:

…positive aspects of mood such as vigor and happiness become heightened, while negative aspects such as tension, depression, and anger are assuaged[…]
Research shows that the dissociation effect results in a 10% reduction in perceived exertion during treadmill running at moderate intensity. […] Although music does not reduce the perception of effort during high intensity work, it does improve the experience thereof: It makes hard training seem more like fun, by shaping how the mind interprets symptoms of fatigue…..The bottom line is that during a hard session, music has limited power to influence what the athlete feels, but it does have considerable leverage on how the athlete feels.

So, music helps you exercise longer and work harder in part, at least, because it makes you more comfortable and gives you something pleasant to experience. In fact, if, somehow, you can actually make music by the exercise you do, you can make strenuous activities seem significantly easier. The authors of this article posit that this effect might have been behind the original development in humans.

Music can make you more efficient

One of the studied effects of music is synchronization. Basically, that refers to moving in time to the beat. “Musical tempo can regulate movement and thus prolong performance. Synchronizing movements with music also enables athletes to perform more efficiently, again resulting in greater endurance.[…] The implication is that music provides temporal cues that have the potential to make athletes’ energy use more efficient.”

So why is efficiency good when exercising? A study (using cycling) measured significantly decreased levels of oxygen consumption when the participants listened to music that matched the tempo of their work out. Participants’ hearts and lungs actually worked more efficiently because of the music they listened to, meaning they were able to do more with less oxygen. To use a personal example: I hopped on the elliptical at the gym the other day. My cardiovascular exercise has taken a hit because of a schedule change recently, and I was really feeling the effects of that. I noticed that I couldn’t maintain the speed and resistance I wanted without my heart rate getting dangerously high. If music helps keep your heart and lungs working better, that means your muscles are going to be able to get a better workout. And that means more strength, more speed, increased lean muscle mass and better metabolism for you.

Music can help you learn faster

Like kindergartners singing songs as they jump rope, music can help us with the “acquisition of motor skills.” In addition to the other learning benefits of music, “music replicates forms of bodily rhythm and many aspects of human locomotion. Hence, music can transport the body through effective movement patterns, the body providing an apparent visual analogue of the sound.”  In other words, when we’re trying to learn a new activity, music can help us pick up on the inherent rhythms of unfamiliar motions as we essentially act out the sounds we hear. Just as music has been known to help sufferers of Parkinsons and other neuromuscular disorders, it can make unfamiliar movements more coordinated.
Additionally, some studies have shown a greater impact on RPE (that’s that perceived rate of exertion we talked about earlier) on untrained versus trained participants. Especially when you’re starting out in a new activity or working on gaining a new skill, music can be instrumental in letting you work longer before you reach exhaustion.

Music can get you in the zone

You’ve heard the phrase “in the zone.” It means you’re totally focused, on point, and things are going just the way they’re meant to. You’re sinking those free throws, your running form is perfect, your zumba moves are right in the groove. Scientists call this “flow,” the zenith of intrinsic motivation. Music helps get you into that flow state.

During flow, you lose self-consciousness and become completely immersed in the activity. This then creates a state in which the performer is intrinsically rewarded by the movement patterns involved, it is the ultimate experience among sport participants commonly known as being “in the zone”.

How to maximize your music’s impact

So, to sum up: music gives you a jump start; makes you work harder, longer, and more effectively; and makes you feel better and have more fun while you exercise. That is, it can do all that when you’re using it right, anyway. Let’s take a look at how to use music to it’s maximum effect.

Choose your own music

When you listen to music you like, especially music you get to choose yourself, you can do more, but feel like you’re trying less.

“Music is like is a legal drug for athletes,” says Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., from London’s Brunel University School of Sport and Education, one of the world’s leading authorities on music and exercise. “It can reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent.”

Start your music before your workout begins

Warming up before you work out is important to avoiding injury and exercising more effectively. Listening to music starts your heart pumping and primes you, body and mind, for the exertion ahead.

Listen to music that makes you happy

Music is a mood booster, and it makes us see the world more positively. It doesn’t have to be relentlessly upbeat if that’s not your thing, though: annoyed does not equal happy. So choose music that speaks to you. Some of my best trail runs last summer were to Adele’s 21. I don’t actually find breakups and infidelity to be cheerful, but I was hearing the lyrics as empowering. That boosted my mood and kept me engaged in the music and the run.

Branch out a bit

Part of the effect music has on the brain is anticipating that epic power chord or fantastic breakdown on the chorus. Your brain gets a rush from your favorite moments of a song, but it also releases those endorphines just prior to that, meaning part of the benefit is from correctly anticipating what’s coming. When a song is overly familiar to the point of annoyance, though, that effect can go down. To get the most out of your music when you exercise, use songs you like, but also try songs that are similar, or new to you but by the same artist.

Use the shuffle button

Randomness in music has been linked to increases in dopamine. Predictability on a playlist can make songs you love seem mundane by reducing anticipation and create a rut. Once you’ve memorized the sequence of songs there is no mystery, which can create monotony. “That song, again?” You can turn your iPod into a Las Vegas-like slot machine delivering hits of dopamine by mixing it up with shuffle mode. Having a perfect song randomly come on shuffle mode, Pandora or Spotify will give you a dopamine rush and that lucky “Jackpot” feeling of reward.

Coordinate your music to your efforts

When you’re warming up, use songs that indicate the intensity of the upcoming activity. Use slower, more sedate songs when you cool down. There’s been a lot of talk about interval training lately, so see if you can match up high intensity periods with songs with more beats per minute (BPM). If you’re doing an activity that’s more fluid, like a swim, bike ride, or run, alternate faster and slower songs on your playlist, and let your body follow the music.

Listen to Music!

In my research, I could find only one area in which music actually hurt physical performance. It turns out strength exercises were negatively impacted by listening to slow, sedate music. So, listen to music when you exercise! It can do a lot to improve your exercise, your performance, and your health. But when you’re doing deadlifts, maybe save the Kenny G for later.

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