I like to listen to my iPod when I work out or run. I prefer to tune out my environment, including other people’s conversations, and focus on what I’m doing. I find I’m more motivated and work out with greater intensity when I listen to my favourite songs. On days when I forget my iPod or the battery is drained, I find myself taking more frequent and lengthier breaks between sets and engaging in conversations.
There have been many scientific studies to support the benefits of music. First, music provides a distraction or dissociation during exercise, reducing perception of pain, effort and fatigue. We recognize when we are exerting ourselves by signs such as a faster heartbeat, faster respiration, sweating and muscle fatigue. When we notice those signs, we tend to want to stop and rest. “Music competes with this physiological feedback for the brain’s conscious attention” (www.tinyurl.com/sa-workout-music). The dissociation effect of music provides a 10-per-cent reduction in perceived exertion.
Music increases mental arousal, workload and time to exhaustion. Music, especially if it’s music you enjoy, makes the time seem to go by faster. Synchronous music with more beats per minute encourages us to increase the intensity of our exercise. Music can increase endurance by up to 15 per cent (www.tinyurl.com/ace-effects). That’s why many fitness classes, such as spinning and aerobics, play fast music.
Music can be used prior to competition or during training to foster arousal regulation so athletes get into an optimal mindset for peak performance. Most studies conclude that training performance is enhanced by music for the reasons already listed, but that, during a competition, runners perform better if they don’t listen to music. The reason may be that the excitement of a race increases runners’ stress, which is a good thing. But a stress level that’s too high – which can be the case when music is thrown into the mix – can have a detrimental effect on performance.
Music is often piped into fitness centres, and it’s not typically cool jazz or classical music. It’s usually rock or pop music aimed at creating a specific psychological reaction. Of course, music preference is very personal. Music can create emotions that motivate us. Whether I’m working out with weights or doing plyometric exercises, fast-paced pop songs with lyrics I find inspiring help me get into the zone. When I’m running long distances, such music helps me push through the mental wall so I can keep going.
Music can act as a metronome. We tend to move to the beat of the music. Music doesn’t have quite the power of distraction with high- or maximal-intensity exercise as with low- and moderate-intensity exercise; still, it does aid us in pushing through the physical demands of the activity. At higher intensities, the body’s internal cues of fatigue have a greater influence over the musical interference.
Music also has an effect on gross motor skills. In addition to its usefulness in aerobic classes that require co-ordinated movements, music adds value to therapeutic situations for patients with neuromuscular disorders, such as stroke patients and people with Parkinson’s disease.
Music can also reduce anxiety and create a sense of calm. Slow instrumental music is sometimes played in yoga classes and often during massage therapy. I switch my playlist to slow ballads when I’m stretching and cooling down at the end of my workouts.
Some studies on the effects of music are contradictory. In the study Music in Crossfit – Influence on Performance, Physiological and Psychological Parameters (www.tinyurl.com/music-in-crossfit) training with music resulted in a lower work output. There was no difference between music and non-music Crossfit workouts with regards to heart rate, blood lactate, perceived exertion or perceived pain. In some situations, instead of providing ergogenic effects, music may provide a negative distraction and result in higher rates of perceived exertion and fatigue. The effects of music may depend on the task. When it comes to strength training, more studies are needed on high load, short duration sets versus longer duration, lower load training.
Regardless of some variability amongst findings, there’s little doubt that music can improve a person’s enjoyment of, and adherence to, an exercise program. Therefore, I recommend you plug in to your favourite tunes and see for yourself how music impacts your performance with different types of exercise.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC.