Everyone's looking for an edge when it comes to fitness, and motivation is often the key. While we all understand the health benefits of regular and strenuous exercise, the energy required to get out on the street or into the gym often proves elusive. According to two encouraging new studies, however, listening to music can make all the difference, with the right tunes capable not only of inspiring workouts but also improving biomechanical performance.
Scientists have long been interested in the links between exercise, motivation, and music. While lots of MP3-loving fitness enthusiasts around the world already seem convinced, Professor Peter Terry from the University of Southern Queensland recently looked at the music/exercise bond from an academic perspective. Analysing all the published literature that exists on the correlation between music and sporting performance, from as far back as 1911, Terry asked if music benefits physical performance, and if so, why?
"When we summarised the research it showed music does have a significant impact on performance in sport and exercise." said Terry, adding "So the question now is not 'does it have a benefit', the question is 'why does it have a benefit'?" People have long associated music with inspiration, distraction, and even pain relief, using music during battle to inspire the troops or during the recovery process to sooth aches and pains. "Music is fundamental to the human experience" said Terry, adding "There's never been a civilisation that didn't have music."
After conducting a meta-analysis of available scientific literature, Terry discovered that the effects of music reach far beyond the psychological. "We know music has a distracting effect... It can distract us from fatigue and pain." said Terry, before speaking about the much more surprising biological benefits of music: "We are more efficient in our movements because of the metronomic effect of the music... It also seems to create a generalised relaxation response which enhances blood flow. It's not just a psychological phenomenon."
The very real, quantifiable effects of music on performance have also been studied recently by Matthew Stork from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Stork studied 20 young, healthy adult volunteers on stationary bicycles, ten listening to music and ten not. While participants all had similar feelings about the difficulty of the workout, those who listened to music experienced an increase in intensity without an associated increase in discomfort. According to Stork, the perceptual benefits of exercise are capable of affecting biological performance through “arousal responses” within the body.
When it comes to exercise, however, it seems not all music is created equal. "What you want to try and do is match the tempo with the activity," says Terry, adding "A lot of music is around 120 beats-per-minute. That's most people's preference... For people who work at a much faster tempo, they don't have much music to choose from, so they'll choose slower music and do two strides to the beat... You're also looking for lyrics that somehow stimulate a good performance."