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Musical Feedback Makes Workouts Feel Easier

Exercise is less exhausting when you're inspired by a musical soundtrack that mirrors the effort you are expending.
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Do you listen to music while working out? Good idea: It can be an effective way to shift your focus from the discomfort that arises from strenuous exercise.

However, newly published research suggests it can play a much bigger role than mere distraction. Under certain conditions, music apparently helps your body use oxygen more efficiently, allowing you to get through a rigorous workout without feeling so exhausted.

This effect appears to be limited to circumstances where the music directly mirrors what you’re doing on the treadmill or training floor. But if these results are confirmed, entrepreneurs will no doubt be rushing products to the market that provide such feedback.

If music can make "physically taxing group activities" less exhausting, it may have evolved as a useful tool to facilitate the completion of essential societal projects.

The study, just posted online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by a research team led by Thomas Hans Fritz of the University of Ghent and the Max Planck Institute. It featured 63 participants (mean age 28) who took part in two sets of a strenuous physical workout using three fitness machines: a tower, a stomach trainer, and a stepper. Afterwards, some of them took part in a separate regimen of isometric exercise.

All did their workout while listening to “rather simplistic electronic dance music” on portable devices. But for one set of exercises, they plugged into a musical feedback technology the researchers call “jymmin.” That’s a cross between “jammin’” and “gym.”

OK, the name needs work, but the technology is pretty cool. The music it plays reflects the wearer’s exertion level at any given moment. For example, when they were using the tower, “no sound except some very deep bass frequencies” was audible when they were not exerting force.

But as the weights were pulled, “the bass line and the beat would blend in their higher frequency spectrum,” the researchers report. Then, by triggering a synthesizer, “a simple melody on a software synthesizer could be created by moving the weights in the top range of displacement.”

This immediate musical response to their physical exertion had a positive effect on the exercisers. Although those listening to a standard musical soundtrack and those on this high-tech musical feedback look expended roughly the same amount of total force, the “perceived sense of exertion was significantly lower” for the latter group.

In other words, they did the same amount of work, but the effort didn’t feel as strenuous. The same result was found for the 22 participants who did the isometric exercises: They, too, reported their workout was less exhausting than when they performed the same regimen listening to a standard soundtrack.

Even more strikingly, the exercisers’ oxygen consumption was lower when they were receiving the musical feedback. “It thus rather appears that participants were able to apply a comparable amount of force using less oxygen,” the researchers write.

So why does this musical feedback allow us to work more efficiently? "We believe that the effects may be due to a greater proportion of emotional motor control due to musical ecstasy during the musical feedback condition," Fritz wrote in an e-mail message.

He and his colleagues (who can be contacted at suspect another factor is “the calming effect of music, leading to reduced muscle tension and more efficient oxygenation.”

In addition, they write, “the musical feedback may have provided the participants with ‘virtual goals.’” Perhaps the fact they could manipulate the soundtrack by pushing themselves just a bit harder “enabled them to regulate and monitor the extent and timing of their movements more effectively.”

This is not only potentially good news for fitness buffs: It also provides intriguing evidence regarding the origins of music. If music can make “physically taxing group activities” less exhausting, the researchers speculate, it may have evolved as a useful tool to facilitate the completion of essential societal projects.

In other words, singing "I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad" all the live-long day just might have made it easier to hammer in those last few spikes. And the satisfaction you feel when music signals your effort is paying off may inspire you to work that much harder.