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Why music enhances your workout

man running
CC/Flickr/Ed Yourdon
The more scientists study the neural connection between music and movement, the more it makes sense that people want to listen to music when exercising.

If you’re one of those people who can’t be on the running path or the elliptical machine without a portable music player, you’ll enjoy science writer Ferris Jabr’s article on the psychology of workout music, which appeared recently on the Scientific American website.

As Jabr explains, scientists have been making some interesting discoveries recently about why so many people find music essential for their workouts.

“In the last 10 years the body of research on workout music has swelled considerably,” Jabr writes, “helping psychologists refine their ideas about why exercise and music are such an effective pairing for so many people as well as how music changes the body and mind during physical exertion. Music distracts people from pain and faitigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual — often without realizing it.”

“In a 2012 review of the research,” he adds, “Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as ‘a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.’”

The right beat

For a piece of music to be helpful to your workout, however, it must have several important features — such as a tempo to which you can synchronize your movements.

Jabr explains:

Although many people do not feel the need to run or move in exact time with their workout music, synchrony may help the body use energy more efficiently. When moving rhythmically to a beat, the body may not have to make as many adjustments to coordinated movements as it would without regular external cues. In a 2012 study by C. J. Bacon of Sheffield Hallam University, Karageorghis and their colleagues, participants who cycled in time to music required 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as cyclists who did not synchronize their movements with background music. Music, it seems, can function as a metronome, helping someone maintain a steady pace, reducing false steps and decreasing energy expenditure.

It’s also important that the music be distracting. Writes Jabr:

The human body is constantly monitoring itself. After a certain period of exercise — the exact duration varies from person to person — physical fatigue begins to set in. The body recognizes signs of extreme exertion — rising levels of lactate in the muscles, a thrumming heart, increased sweat production — and decides it needs a break. Music competes with this physiological feedback for the brain's conscious attention. Similarly, music often changes people's perception of their own effort throughout a workout: it seems easier to run those 10 miles or complete a few extra biceps curls when Beyoncé or Eminem is right there with you.

“The benefits of distraction are most pronounced during low- to moderate-intensity exercise,” he adds. “When up against high-intensity exercise, music loses its power to override the physical feelings of tiredness, [although] it can still change the way people respond to that fatigue.”

An old and deep connection

The more scientists study the neural connection between music and movement, the more it makes sense that people want to listen to music when exercising. And those connections may have ancient evolutionary roots.

“Recent studies suggest that — even if someone is sitting perfectly still — listening to enjoyable music increases electrical activity in various regions of the brain important for coordinating movements, including the supplementary motor area, cerebellum, basal gangli and ventral premotor cortext,” writes Jabr. “Some researchers think that this neural crosstalk underlies people’s instinct to move in time to music. … In its conception, music was likely an extension of the human body. Maybe the brain remembers it that way.”

You can read Jabr’s article on the Scientific American website.

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