For generations, humans have noticed that music often changes the experience of physical exertion. If you’ve ever used teamwork to haul a heavy fishnet or raise a sail (which most of us probably haven’t), you may have witnessed the effects of singing on the collective strength of many pairs of arms. In a more modern world, scientific fascination with music and exercise first started to appear in the 1970s when aerobics classes set to music were becoming popular.
When researchers began investigating the impact of music on motivation and fatigue, they divided their findings into five interesting categories. It seems that music keeps us moving by supporting dissociation, arousal regulation, flow, synchronization, and the acquisition of motor skills.
These are specific terms related to brain function, but in summary, music helps us block out sensations associated with fatigue. It also gives our minds something to focus on that channels our attention away from our bodies. Higher beats per minute, or BPM, in the music we choose also seems to boost our performance, primarily during cardio exercises. High BPM has a reduced effect on stretching and resistance training.
Choosing Music: Considerations
To make the most of your music-exercise pairing, try to choose songs with a tone and tempo that match your chosen activity. Since many of the benefits of music happen as endorphins are released by our listening brains, it’s a good idea to choose music that feels happy.
If you’re leading a class or exercising in a public setting, make sure your music choice is inclusive and appealing to everyone who will be subjected to it. If you’ll be listening to your choices alone, make sure earbuds are permitted during your activity (they’re forbidden in some race and marathon settings). And keep the volume low—don’t isolate yourself from what’s happening around you.