By Blake Dillon
Next time you’re at the gym, look around. From the treadmills to the bench and beyond, you’ll notice one thing that almost every gym-goer has in common. Hint: it’s not their pension for a good sweat and a big lift. No, what links fitness enthusiasts the world over is the thin wire streaming from their iPod to their ears. Many fitness buffs — whether talking about people outside for a run or people lifting weights in a gym — know that their headphones are a workout essential. But what they don’t know is why that is.
As it turns out, listening to music while you exercise does a lot more than make gruelling physical activity more bearable — it literally changes how you perform. Research has shown that music has a laundry list of both psychological and physiological benefits, as the right songs can heighten your mood, divert your attention from pain, reduce your fatigue, improve your endurance, and even increase the weight you’re capable of lifting.
In 2012, a researcher out of Brunel University even went as far as considering music “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.” If that’s not a resounding testament to its power in the gym, then what is?
Why Music Can Help You Work Out
Throughout history, you’ll find several examples of music’s ties to physical activity. From pirates notoriously singing while manning their ships to soldiers belting out military cadences during boot camps, song and hard work have been attached at the hip for centuries. It’s unlikely they knew it at the time, but there’s actually a neurological reason that people eventually discovered the two belong together — proprioception. In layman’s terms, this means that you are aware of your body’s whereabouts during motion as well as its exertion during activity. Simply put, if you’re conscious of your body’s every move and how hard it’s working, you will tire quicker during your workout than you would if you had no clue. Music can trick your mind into forgetting about proprioception, providing the perfect distraction.
Matthew Stork, a PhD student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, recently led a study that confirmed music’s benefits in regards to high-intensity interval training (HIIT). He says something as simple as listening to music can have a powerful impact on your exercise time.
“Individuals who listened to music during the performance of HIIT not only enjoyed the exercise more, but they also worked harder physically,” he explains, citing the results of his study. “Listening to music while you work out may help you ‘psych up’ or focus your attention toward the exercise task, putting you in a spot where you may be able to operate in a slightly more optimal way.”
Selecting A Tune That Speaks To You
While music can be a powerful training tool, simply cranking some AC/DC likely won’t make you run faster or lift more weight. To truly elicit the tangible benefits of music, you must listen to the right songs — songs that speak to you on an individual or personal level. Is there a song that reminds you of your first kiss? Your graduation? A memorable concert? Are there lyrics that get you fired up? Using music to tap into a positive mental state can give your body the motivation it needs to succeed during exercise.
How Genre Impacts Your Fitness
Data out of a UK university suggests your choice of music can play a big role in who you are as a person. The study examined more than 36,000 people from over 60 different countries to determine how personality traits like self-esteem, temperament, creativity, work ethic, and aggression were affected by music. The results showed that people who listen to country, rap, and dance music tend to be hardworking and outgoing — two traits critical to improving your fitness level. On the flip side, the study exposed people who listen to reggae, rock, and metal as laid back and not hardworking or outgoing individuals — a combo that can make hitting the gym a challenge.
Rhythm and Tempo
As researchers continue to examine music’s relationship with exercise, two words repeatedly show up in their findings: “tempo” and “rhythm.” Every song ever written can be measured for tempo and rhythm thanks to a unit called beats per minute (bpm), and it’s easier than ever to do so with handy websites and apps like BPM-Detector, songbpm.com, or jog.fm. While songs can vary pretty widely in this regard (as can preference in music taste), the most recent research, according to WebMD, suggests there is a sweet spot fitness buffs should strive for when choosing songs for their workout playlist — that range is anywhere between 120 and 140 bpm.
A Good Song Is The Best Medicine
Several doctors from all fields of medicine utilize music during rehabilitation, treatment, or even therapy sessions. Patients with Alzheimer’s, addiction, and depression are often treated with music, and there’s new research out of Montreal’s McGill University that suggests listening to the right tunes might even boost a person’s immune system. Other studies, this time from the Journal of Advanced Nursing, also suggest that listening to music can reduce chronic pain from a range of serious conditions, including osteoarthritis, disc problems, and rheumatoid arthritis, by up to 21 per cent.
A Final Note
Despite uncovering significant correlations over the past decade or so, there’s still much to learn about music’s relationship with health and wellness. With the audible artform predating history itself, there’s a lot for researchers to sift through. And, for that reason, perhaps we’ll never truly understand exactly what it does for our minds and our bodies. That said, though, even in the early stages of research, it’s becoming evidently clear that a good tune can go a long way in keeping you healthy and fit.