How Music "Hacks" Your Brain to Work Harder
You’re on your last lap. Your lungs are burning, and your legs are yelling at you to stop. But then it happens, Bonnie Tyler’s Holding Out for a Hero blasts through your headphones and suddenly it’s a whole new ballgame. You don’t feel as exhausted, your legs start moving a little faster, and you finish your run the way you wanted—like a boss.
What is it about music that helps us push a little bit harder? The idea of musically enhanced training dates back to at least 1911, when an investigator named Leonard Ayres found that cyclists pedaled faster when they were listening to music.
Much of the most interesting and recent research has come from the Brunel University School of Sport and Education. It’s there that Dr. Costas Karageorghis stands as the world’s foremost authority on the link between music and exercise.
Over the course of 20 years, Dr. Karageorghis has found three key elements that influence exercise performance: the tendency to move in time with synchronous sounds (toe tapping to a favorite song), the increased desire to move when listening to music, and the distraction that music provides from discomfort related to exercise.
To find the right pump-up song, according to their research, you have to find one that satisfies the important qualities of tempo and rhythm response.
Tempo, or speed of the song, is easy to grasp. Faster music makes our bodies instinctively move faster. Rhythm response, on the other hand, is a little vague. It attempts to measure the temperature reading for a song’s boogie fever, or more simply, how much it makes us want to move.
These two factors led Dr. Karageoghis to describe music as “a legal performance-enhancing drug.”
“It can reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent,” Karageorghis explained.
One explanation for this can found in another study, which showed that listening to enjoyable music triggers electrical activity in regions of the brain important for coordinating movements. This suggests music may prevent our body from having to work as hard as it would without regular external guidance. In effect, the music sets a beat that helps our brains time our movements.
So, the next time you hit the treadmill, don’t be afraid to kick out some of your favorite jams. Anything that pushes you a little harder and lets you have more fun is worth a shot.
As a bonus from our friends at Ace Fitness, here are the optimal BPM (beats per minute) to help you pick the right songs for your next workout:
Power walking: approx. 137-139 bpm
Ex: Mamma Mia by ABBA, Beat it by Michael Jackson
Running: approx. 147-169 bpm
Ex: I Ran (So Far Away) by Flock of Seagulls, Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham!
Cycling: approx. 135-170 bpm
Ex: Beautiful Life by Ace of Base, Hey Ya! by OutKast
Foster, Carl Ph.D., and Pocari, John Ph.D., with Anders, Mark (2013). Exploring the Effects of Music on Exercise Intensity. ACE Certified News. Retrieved from http://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/805/
Kornysheva K, von Cramon DY, Jacobsen T, Schubotz RI (January 31, 2010). Tuning-in to the beat: Aesthetic appreciation of musical rhythms correlates with a premotor activity boost. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19585590