• Robb G. Best

Want an Easier, More Effective Workout? Rock Out.

Regular, sustained physical activity has countless mental benefits. Just to name a few, working out improves blood flow, boosts your BDNF ("miracle-gro for the brain"), lowers risk of depression, and decreases brain inflammation that has been linked to dementia. Still, for many, establishing a regular exercise routine--especially during the dark, dreary winter months--can be a real challenge.

In Brain Apps, we discuss how to use habit-building techniques to clear some of those initial hurdles. Something as simple as where you keep your running shoes can have a powerful impact on your behavior. In addition to harnessing the power of habit, however, researchers have uncovered a new way for exercisers to gain an edge: listening to up-tempo music.

At first glance, this doesn't appear to offer anything new. Everyone from Jazzercise instructors to runners carefully curating their running playlists knows that the right track can distract from the sweating and discomfort of physical exertion. It turns out, though, that the benefits extend farther.

Recently, researchers writing for Frontiers in Psychology staged an experiment. They studied female volunteers performing an endurance exercise (walking on a treadmill) or a high-intensity exercise (using a piece of weightlifting gear called a leg press). Sometimes, these volunteers did their exercise in silence. Sometimes, they did it while listening to pop music at various tempos.

The researchers then recorded a pile of data, measuring things like how much effort the volunteers felt they were expending, as well as their heart rate during the exercise. (Within reason, a higher heart rate signifies more physical--and thus mental--benefit.)

“We found that listening to high-tempo music while exercising resulted in the highest heart rate and lowest perceived exertion compared with not listening to music,” said Professor Luca P. Ardigò of the University of Verona in Italy, who added, “This means that the exercise seemed like less effort, but it was more beneficial in terms of enhancing physical fitness.” This was especially true for the treadmill users; the weight lifters experienced less of a lift from the music.

Larger sample sizes are needed to confirm the results, and the researchers hope to also organize future studies to examine the role of elements like lyrics, melody, and genre--what type of music gives exercisers the biggest boost? But in the meantime, the next time your habit training leads you to the gym, it might be worth switching out that podcast for some "Uptown Funk."

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