For many people, listening to music is an essential part of exercising – it motivates, helps us maintain or increase our pace, makes working out more fun, sometimes less painful. Now science is beginning to uncover exactly how and why this happens.

Some things about music are well known. It captures our attention, lifts our spirits, triggers emotions, alters and regulates mood, heightens arousal and encourages rhythmic movement. It also distracts us from any pain and fatigue that we might be experiencing while exercising.

So it’s unsurprising that when it comes to working out to music, both the brain and body are involved, and each influences the other.

Professor Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University London, a leading expert in the interplay between music and exercise and author of Applying Music in Exercise and Sport, has described the use of music while exercising, as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug”.

One of the unusual things about being human is that we unconsciously, instinctively, move to the beat of whatever rhythm we’re listening to. As many studies have shown, a certain rhythm can make people walk, run, swim, pedal or paddle faster.

Music can make us work out faster and harder, but also make exercise seem easier.

Ethiopian athlete Haile Gebreselassie famously attributed his breaking of the indoor 2000-meter record in 1998 to synchronizing his stride rate to the beat of the 1995 hit, Scatman, by Scatman John. “I’m a Scatman! Dum dum and then you know the timing and at the same time your style changes immediately,” Gebreselassie told CNN. By all means, give it a go. It’s certainly infectious.

It seems that music can make us work out faster and harder, but also make exercise seem easier. In one of several studies in this area, Karageorghis and his team found that participants who cycled to music that matched the tempo of their pedaling rhythm used less energy than when the music was slower.

This interaction between music and exercise is a burgeoning research topic, partly prompted by new technologies that allow us take our music with us everywhere we go. Yet the mechanisms involved are not well understood.

What is going on in our brain when we exercise with music?

Scientists have long known that there are direct connections between the auditory neurons and motor neurons in the brain; even if someone is sitting perfectly still, listening to music they like increases activity in various regions of the brain important for coordinating movements. Some researchers argue that people’s instinct to move in time to music could be put down to this “neural crosstalk”.

Dr Marcelo Bigliassi from the University of São Paulo, Brazil, has spent the last ten years looking at the neural networks that activate in response to exercise and music, to understand better how music influences psychological, physiological and psycho-physiological behavior.

“In general, my studies indicate that auditory and audiovisual stimuli have the potential to increase the use of dissociative thoughts, such as daydreaming, elicit a more positive affective state, ameliorate fatigue-related symptoms, and enhance exercise performance,” he says. “And the mechanisms that underlie such potent effects appear to be associated with the rearrangement of the brain’s electrical frequency.”

He has found, for instance, that theta waves – the low-frequency waves in the brain, often associated with sleep, that correspond to feelings of deep relaxation – tend to up-regulate in response to exertion, but are down-regulated throughout the brain in response to music. “Therefore, sensory stimuli might have the potential to partially counteract the detrimental effects of fatigue and facilitate the execution of movements.”

This seems to be particularly true in challenging situations, such as first training sessions, or with clinical populations, such as patients with obesity and/or diabetes.

Those new to a particular exercise, it seems, might be more responsive to music than experienced trainers.

In a recent study he used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the regions of the brain that activate when participants exercise with music. He found that the combination of music and exercise yielded increased activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus, an area of the brain that appears to be directly associated with processing feelings of exertion. “Accordingly, increased activation in this region appears to assuage negative bodily sensations during exercise.”

Music, he says, can also reduce the neural outputs sent from the brain to the working muscles, effectively blocking the negative bodily signals entering our focal awareness.

However, it’s important to understand that the psycho-physical effects of music on exercise depend on a variety of factors. Those new to a particular exercise, it seems, might be more responsive to music than experienced trainers. It may partly depend on personality – some researchers have suggested that extraverts (who typically seek out external sources of stimulation) are more responsive to music than introverts.

Some researchers have suggested that extraverts (who typically seek out external sources of stimulation) are more responsive to music than introverts.

“The use of music is reliant upon several factors, such as the participant’s attentional style, exercise intensity, complexity, mode, etc,” says Bigliassi. What might work for a spin class, for instance, probably won’t work for something involving a high level of concentration (such as golf putting), in which auditory distraction is more likely to disrupt performance than enhance it.

Context is everything. Some activities lend themselves particularly well to musical accompaniment, particularly if they’re repetitive and strenuous, such as warm-ups, weight/circuit training, stretching and so on. Whatever you’re doing, it’s best to match the rhythm and tempo to the activity, says Professor Peter Terry from the University of Queensland, in his paper, Psychophysical Effects of Music in Sport and Exercise.

“For example, if the goal during warm-up is to elevate heart rate to 110 bpm [beats per minute], then limit choices to music with a tempo in the range 100-120 bpm or, better still, selections that increase gradually in tempo from resting heart rate (around 70 bpm) up to 120 bpm.”

We know at an intuitive level that music is motivating and sustaining, but if gym managers, trainers, athletes or anyone trying to get/keep fit want to harness the psycho-physical benefit of music, they should be aware that one play list does not fit all. One person’s motivational music is another person’s turn-off noise. It’s personal, but used in the right place, at the right time, it’s increasingly apparent that music – as a motivational tool, and an endurance support – really does work.

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