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Why Does Music Help Us Exercise?

Several years ago, cognitive scientist Tom Fritz spent some time in northern Cameroon, a mountainous and culturally isolated region in the middle of Africa. He was observing the people who live there, the Mafa, who (from our western perspective, anyway) have some fascinating musical rituals.

The Mafa language doesn’t have a word for music because music is always intertwined with specific rituals, such as preparing for the harvest. Men will stand in a circle and play repetitive melodies on wooden flutes. Playing a Mafan flute requires a lot of energy and rapid exhalation. Some of the men will dance and run while playing, and the rituals often last several hours. “It’s physically very exhausting — they achieve this musical ecstasy,” Fritz says. “It got me interested in how one could translate something like that to our western culture.”

Fritz’s version of that musical ecstasy debuted yesterday in a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. He rigged up several pieces of gym equipment to a computer so that using the machines produces electronic music. It’s hard to explain in words, so here’s a video of Fritz showing off his system:

Fritz calls the system jymmin — “a mixture of jammin’, like Bob Marley, and gym,” he says. In the new study, Fritz uses the system to investigate a phenomenon most of us are familiar with: the way that music eases the pain of working out.

There are many historical examples of people making and listening to music while doing hard labor. For example, chain gangs of prisoners — like these men working in a Texas prison in 1966 — would often sing in synchrony with the beat of their work.

But scientists didn’t really begin studying this connection between music and exercise until the mid-1990s, when technology suddenly made it possible for a lot of people to take music wherever they went. “When I used to go running in the ’80s and listen to music, I had to carry a walkman. And at the time we thought, ‘Oh these are great!'” recalls Andy Lane, an exercise scientist at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK. “They were terrible, of course, these great heavy things and the headphones never worked. Now you’ve got iPods, and this massive use of this technology. So the research corresponds with the demand.”

Research by Lane and others has shown, for example, that music can reduce your perception of exhaustion during a moderate workout and boost your physical output. What’s more, syncing your movements with a musical beat seems to increase stamina and metabolic efficiency.

The mainstream explanation for these positive effects is that music serves as a mental distraction. But Fritz’s new study suggests that’s not the whole story.

Fritz asked 61 non-athlete volunteers to workout on one of three machines — a tower, a stepper, or a stomach trainer — for six minutes and then fill out questionnaires about their perceived exertion. The volunteers always worked out in groups of three. In one session, they listened to music passively, and in another they made music together using Fritz’s jymmin set-up.

For 53 of the 61 participants, their perceived exertion was lower during the jymmin session than the passive-listening session, the study found. That’s interesting, Fritz says, because when jymmin you can’t be distracted from your ‘proprioception’ — the awareness of your body’s position in space and the force it’s exerting. On the contrary, you must focus on your muscles. “You’re playing a melody and then remembering, OK, if I’m at this position, then I can make this tone,” he says. “Your proprioception is your guide to playing the music.”

Other experts are impressed by the technological innovation behind the jymmin set-up, but have some questions about the study’s design. One concern is that Fritz reported perceived exertion not as raw scores, but as ratios of how a participant felt about jymmin versus passive listening. The raw scores are important because previous research has shown that during very intense workouts, the distraction effect disappears: The strain on your body is so great that your brain ignores the music. “These ratios are just frustrating,” Lane says. “They take away the ability to interpret the results.”

And if the data are true, it’s unclear why the jymmin set-up would lead to lower scores of perceived exertion. Fritz says there are many possibilities. It could be what he terms “musical agency,” or the sense that you’re composing or tweaking the music. That might explain why runners tend to match their steps to musical beats, he says. “It might be that they have some type of illusion of musical agency.”

Others are drawn to a social explanation instead. “There seems to be something  going on here with play and fun and the interaction between people,” says Beau Sievers, a graduate student at Dartmouth whose research has uncovered a universal link between music and motion. “I would have liked to see some analysis of the interactions between the participants, to see if people are working together to create some kind of musical result with one another.”

Fritz agrees that the social aspect of jymmin is important, and he plans on studying it in more depth. Based on his own experience, he says, the social influences is particularly strong after using the machines for 10 minutes or more, when you really start to feel the burn.

“You reach a point where you think, wow, I’m ready to sit down and go home. But you’re in the middle of a session, and you realize someone else is just starting some kind of improvisation, and so you think, OK, OK, I can’t stop now,” he says. “All of a sudden, your idea that you’ve reached your limit is totally gone. And you can play on and on and on.”


You can watch a longer video of Fritz jymmin here

If the title of this post sounds familiar, it might be because I’ve written two others with a similar theme: 

Why Does Music Move Us So? 

Why Does Music Feel So Good?

18 thoughts on “Why Does Music Help Us Exercise?

  1. Why is Fritz confused about why music helps us exercise? Surely the most likely explanation is because music gets our emotions going, and emotions increase our motivation and also our pain tolerance. Music make us feel like we’re the star of our own movie with its own soundtrack. So it increases our emotion and also our sense of personal heroism (even if we’re just in the gym doing some sit-ups). We feel like we’re Rocky, training for the Big Fight!

  2. While I found Fritz’ study very interesting and I, as a runner, definitely agree that music helps to motivate us and potentially work a little harder while exercising. As I watched the video I can relate because I do weight lifting as well and when there is pump up music playing I am more likely to want to finish my workout and try a little harder simply because the music keeps me amped up. However, I really had a hard time watching the video because the man who was performing the exercises was doing them completely wrong simply because he was hearing music differently as he did the exercise differently. For example, pulling the weight down and letting it back up super fast does nothing for the eccentric motion and muscles used for that motion. The idea seems okay but the music in turn leads too poor form by the person doing the exercise. In my opinion this could lead to very little benefit on the behalf of the individual trying to gain results from the exercise.

  3. I agree with Jules Evans’ and Alex’s comments before. I think that the concept as a whole is interesting, but having a pre-recorded beat helps produce better form. The idea of creating music/beats while moving is fine as long as you’re not tethered to heavy equipments..then it just adds to the injury risk.. And I also think that Jules made a good point about music >emotion>motivation>increased pain tolerance.

  4. I would be interested to know what the results would be if the subjects were allowed to listen to their favorite music (of their own choosing) for a session as opposed to the music they hear in his jymmin system. I know for myself, not only is it difficult for me to exercise without music, it’s almost impossible to exercise to music I dislike. I wonder what the comparisons would be?

  5. There is also research which shows that if you run without an iPod, just BEING among the natural sounds of the environment, that stress levels (as measured by the level of cortisol in saliva) reduce markedly more than if you run with music drowning out the sounds of wind, bird song etc.

  6. As a marching band member, I found this article fascinating. For us, there’s so much going on mentally and collaboratively that it takes months to master it all. Obviously, to perform any music, we have to collaborate, but in marching band, we also watch our positions in relation to other band members and constantly make tiny adjustments to correct our own places in line. Everything the audience sees and hears is done together or not at all. Here’s a little idea of what I’m getting at: roll-stepping (very carefully rolling from heel to toe) going toward an end zone while twisted sideways to face the sideline, glancing to your side and your front to check your alignment and spacing as you move, and playing an instrument–all from memory. (I might add that wind instrument players don’t even get to use the air they breathe for themselves–it goes right back out again.) This is a very physically and mentally demanding activity, and I personally spend my time after rehearsal eating and sleeping. But I rarely feel tired while we’re practicing, and never while we perform. In fact, I really enjoy marching band. If the results of this study can be recreated, we of the band will finally have an explanation for this phenomenon!

  7. I’ve always thought the benefits of music were a given, but, scientifically examining why is interesting and feel it should be looked into further. Here’s a rhythmical viewpoint of things I feel is worthy of relating, and my apologies if it seems to be off topic.
    An interesting experience happened to me yesterday while running a 10K.
    I started running with the wrong headphones that always fell out so I trained myself to go without. I am also a drummer and when I began running I quickly became comforted by the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement. The sound helped me set my pace. It still does.
    While running the 10K I found it almost unbearable to hear the sound of everyone else’s feet! All the random rhythms at once threw me off to the point where I felt the strong urge to sprint away. Other times I ran into small groups of similarly paced runners that had their own rhythm but still different from mine. Hacking, coughing, and arrhythmic whinnying helped me feel uneasy as well. It seemed as though they were fighting their own natural, comfortable pace, and in turn, were causing themselves to be out of sync with themselves. I had the thought that they should just concentrate on their breathing, and that I didn’t know their situation. and who the heck was I? But it drove me bananas. Again, I had to sprint away. But towards the end, I found my people. Quite naturally we fell into a tight group for the last mile and half. Evenly paced with a mutual understanding to keep it steady and in sync. Stay in the groove with the group or drop back. It made the last part of the race seem effortless.
    Thanks for reading.

  8. I like the idea of this, but I have three issues with it:

    1) The guy in the video has terrible form. This could seriously injure people if they have to change their form every rep to hit different pitches, not to mention the bobbling head.

    2) As a weight lifter, I know that using the kind of form the guy in the video was using will require less exertion because a person will be using more muscles to pull the same weight less distance. I don’t think a single one of his reps was full range of motion (some of them hardly moved at all!), and pulling from different angles uses many more muscles than what pulling from only one angle would use.

    3) He is encouraging people to continue doing reps of a single exercise until they can go no more. That kind of weight lifting may deteriorate a person’s muscles (depending on their experience, diet, how much rest they get, activity level, etc).


    I would love to use something like this to help me ensure that I am using good form by trying to match the pitch and note length of each rep. It would also be good ear training.

  9. It’s should be said music simply insert energy into our body the way sun shine generate electricity to solar panel. The research should be go that way. Remember, in old days war, troops employs drums and trumpets in battle field to get extra energy beside unifying spirits.

  10. I am facinated by this article. of course i like many others noticed that listening to music while working out made me feel like i had more stamina, and more so when it was music i enjoy, but why would humans have this process going on in their brains? It doesnt seem evolutionarily necessary, or safe to have the distraction of music

  11. It’s funny, because I really enjoy music, but never listen to it while exercising. Sometimes, I may chant a mantra, but not often. To me, it seems like a distraction ’cause I enjoy letting my thoughts wonder, unfettered, while intensely exercising.

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