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.
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.
“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.