If you work out, and you like to listen to music while you work out, you probably have a set of favourite songs or artists that you always listen to when exercising. You might even have a playlist on your iPod called ‘running music,’ ‘lifting tunes,’ or ‘workout beatz.’ Personally, as a heavy metal fan, music from bands like Metallica and Iron Maiden get me focused during a workout. I have a playlist called ‘Heart attack music’ for times that I need the heaviest of the heavy screamer bands to get me pumped up enough to run that extra mile.
But no matter what type of music you prefer, perceived beneficial effects of listening to your favourite music while exercising are probably real. A new study showed that men who cycled at high-intensity while listening to preferred music were able to go a greater distance and had lower ratings of perceived exertion than when they listened to non-preferred music or no music. The study was unfortunately limited in that it only included 15 subjects and all were male, but the findings are quite compelling – subjects were able to cycle for an average of 9.8km when they listened to preferred music as opposed to 7.1km when they listened to non-preferred music (they went 7.7km when listening to no music).
The researchers didn’t report what type of music the subjects preferred, but it is mentioned that faster tempos in songs (a mean rhythm of 117 beats/min) were selected over slower tempos (95 beats/min). These faster tunes were probably chosen to match the elevated heart rates induced by high intensity cycling. However, a fair comparison between ‘preferred’ and ‘non-preferred’ music should control for the effect of tempo, which is a factor that the authors of this study failed to take into account.
Regardless, music can have profound effects on emotion and mood, so it is believable that preferred music can pump us up and encourage physical activity. The authors of this study reason that music can distract an exerciser’s attention from perception of physical sensations, giving rise to feelings of less perceived exertion and less fatigue. Perhaps this is just what it is that keeps us going when listening to our favourite music as opposed to music we’re uninterested in. When music is non-preferred, we try to block it out or ignore it, leading to greater attention to pain and lactic acid build-up in our muscles. When we love the song we’re listening to, and we get really into the intricacies of the beat and melody, we ignore physical pain. If it were possible to put someone in a brain scanner while they exercise and listen to their favourite music, it would be predicted that their pain centres (e.g. the insular cortex) would be less active than during exercise with boring music.
So the lesson is this: bring your iPod to the gym, because listening to Justin Bieber’s latest hit (or other cheesy top 40 songs that are played at most facilities) while exercising can literally be painful.
Nakamura PM, Pereira G, Papini CB, Nakamura FY, & Kokubun E (2010). Effects of preferred and nonpreferred music on continuous cycling exercise performance. Perceptual and motor skills, 110 (1), 257-64 PMID: 20391890