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What is the Psychological Connection Between Music and a Good Workout, Anyway?

What is the Psychological Connection Between Music and a Good Workout, Anyway?

Woman listening to music at the gym while she exercises on the treadmill.

We’ve all experienced that moment of dread when we roll up to the gym, only to realize that we’ve left our earbuds at home. It feels as though any remaining motivation to exercise has drained from us. The task ahead seems much more grueling when we can’t jam to our painstakingly-curated workout playlist. It’s true that music makes us feel more motivated and positive about working out, but why is that the case? As it turns out, there’s lots of evidence to suggest that a lot more may be neurologically going on here.

When we hear music, various parts of the brain “light up,” or become active. While we would expect areas associated with sound and rhythm to become active when we hear music, there appears to be a lot more to it than that. Dr. Jessica Grahn, an associate professor and scholar at the Brain and Mind Institute and Western University, says that we also see responses from “areas associated with emotion, memory, and movement planning. Interestingly, the movement areas of the brain respond even if we aren’t actually moving at the time. The rhythm in the music elicits responses in movement areas even when we are staying still.”

It is important to keep in mind that everyone responds differently to both music and exercise. For example, elite athletes who participated in a study yielded less of a benefit from exercising with music than amateurs.

The type of music used also makes a difference. “Most people select highly energetic music that they enjoy for their exercise,” Dr. Grahn said. “We think that the energy level from the music increases arousal, or alertness, in the listener.” However, a lot of it has to do with that gym dilemma we mentioned earlier. Music acts a distraction from he physical stress we are undergoing, and we choose the music we like the most to maximize this effect. “Listening to something enjoyable is a clear way to improve mood, and we know that improvements in mood translate to all sorts of benefits to motivation and perseverance,” Dr. Grahn said.

Another link between exercise, music, and the brain has to do with rhythm. This is often observed in – you guessed it – rhythmic exercises. According to Dr. Grahn, “there is evidence that the steady beat present in a lot of music can help rhythmic exercise, such as cycling, running, walking, or rowing. This may be because the beat acts as a pacing cue, or may stem from the rhythm’s effect on readying our movement systems for action.”

Still, it must be emphasized that while all these things very helpful for some people, others are wired differently. Some, such as elite athletes, will probably experience very little benefit at all. As Dr. Grahn puts it, “For those who enjoy working out with music, the motivation to exercise, perceived exertion, and endurance may be improved by a workout with music. However, not all individuals show these effects.”

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