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When You Work Out to Music, Your Whole Body Syncs Up to Its Rhythm

But why do we require music to work out? And what kind of music is best?

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In your gym bag there are probably a few things: shorts, sneakers, socks and some sort of music-playing device. But why do we require music to work out? And what kind of music is best?

At Scientific American, Ferris Jabr rounds up some ideas:

In the last 10 years the body of research on workout music has swelled considerably, 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 fatigue, 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, 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.

There are some obvious bits to choosing the best workout music: faster tempos make people move faster, for instance. But there’s a limit too. The sweet spot seems to be somewhere between 120 and 160 beats per minute.  As you’re listening, you’re not consciously timing your feet to the rhythm of the songs; your whole body is synching up. The New York Times writes:

In fact, it’s music’s dual ability to distract attention (a psychological effect) while simultaneously goosing the heart and the muscles (physiological impacts) that makes it so effective during everyday exercise. Multiple experiments have found that music increases a person’s subjective sense of motivation during a workout, and also concretely affects his or her performance. The resulting interactions between body, brain and music are complex and intertwined. It’s not simply that music motivates you and you run faster. It may be that, instead, your body first responds to the beat, even before your mind joins in; your heart rate and breathing increase and the resulting biochemical reactions join with the music to exhilarate and motivate you to move even faster. Scientists hope to soon better understand the various nervous system and brain mechanisms involved. But for now, they know that music, in most instances, works. It eases exercise. In a typical study, from 2008, cyclists who rode in time to music used 7 percent less oxygen to pedal at the same pace as when they didn’t align themselves to the songs.

The invention of portable music players has made choosing the perfect song for your perfect, tailored-to-you workout that much easier. But using music to during physical activity dates far back before the iPod. In Greece, athletes would listen to a musician during training. Militaries all over the world have played music during training. Slaves sang songs while they worked to keep both moral and pace up and to distract themselves from the pain of the work.

Even before Greek athletes, it’s possible that our brains were hard-wired to respond to music this way. Scientific American writes:

Scientists now know that, although different regions of the human brain specialize in processing different senses—sound, sight, touch—the brain uses the information it receives from one sense to help it understand another. What people see and feel while listening to speech or music, for example, changes what they hear. Music and movement are particularly entangled in the brain. 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 ganglia and ventral premotor cortex. Some researchers think that this neural crosstalk underlies people’s instinct to move in time to music. “We have also known for decades that there are direct connections from auditory neurons to motor neurons,” explains Grahn, who enjoys working out to cheesy techno-music. “When you hear a loud noise, you jump before you have even processed what it is. That’s a reflex circuit, and it turns out that it can also be active for non-startling sounds, such as music.”

So it’s really not your fault that you have to listen to trashy pop music at the gym: you can blame evolution for your secret Rihanna playlist.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Your Playlist Really Does Impact Your Workout
How Do Our Brains Process Music?

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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