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Scientists propose new theory for why music is a critical part of exercise

Music helped people “perform to the same level as when they were not mentally fatigued.”

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There might be a little something extra to Jazzercize, spin classes, and Zumba besides spandex, sweat, and (potentially) killer abs.

All three share a common element — one that might actually do more than just provide the beat behind a grueling workout.

Listening to music during a run may actually boost performance and trick the brain into thinking the workout isn’t as strenuous, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise

Furthermore, the study found when running with “mental fatigue,” music may erase fatigue’s negative effect.

“We were expecting some benefit of music, but music essentially allowed people to perform to the same level as when they were not mentally fatigued,” Shaun Phillips tells Inverse. Phillips is a senior lecturer in sport and exercise physiology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

LONGEVITY HACKS is a regular series from Inverse on the science-backed strategies to live better, healthier, and longer without medicine. Get more in our Hacks index.

Science in action — Study participants were allowed to choose their own favorite workout music. These songs included:

  • “Addicted To You” by Avicii
  • “Run This Town” by Jay-Z
  • “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen
  • “Back in Black” by AC/DC
  • “Power” by Kanye West.

To test out the ability of music to help overcome mental fatigue during exercise, the researchers looked at young, active adults across two studies within the overall project.

  • Study 1 included nine “physically active males”
  • Study 2 included nine “recreational runners” — seven males and two females.

All the participants already listened to music during exercise before the study. Each group performed three trials of a designated exercise:

  • The first group did short runs in timed intervals until they couldn’t complete them within a defined window of time.
  • The second went on a timed five-kilometer run.

Phillips and colleagues measured, respectively, how far the participants ended up running before they were cut off for being too slow or how fast they completed the 5k. The three trials looked at:

  • Their baseline performance of their designated exercise, with no music
  • Their performance of the exercise, with music, after completing a mentally strenuous test called a Stroop Test for 30 minutes — this is when you see color names but must identify the color of the word, not the word itself.
  • Their performance after taking the same test, with no music

Researchers found that when the first group was mentally fatigued after the test, music helped them make moderate improvements in their timed interval runs compared with no music — enough to counteract the mental fatigue and bring them back to their baseline performance.

This means they ran further with mental fatigue while listening to music than without music. The second group only made small improvements in their 5k time, but it seemed that the music still made a difference.

WHY IT'S A HACK — It’s no secret people like to pump up the jams while exercising. Previous studies have found that listening to music helps people feel better while working out, perform better, and (as this new study found) perceive less exertion.

But this is the first study, its authors write, that demonstrates the effect of music on mental fatigue during a run.

Some of the study participants listened to Jay-Z while they exercised.Brian Ach/Getty Images for Something in the Water

“The concept of mental fatigue is interesting as it bears relevance for almost everyone, who will experience mental fatigue in their daily lives,” says Phillips.

Music helped the participants to override their brain fog, so to speak, and run as if they hadn’t had a strenuous mental challenge beforehand. Participants rated their “perceived exertion” as almost the same or lower when they performed better on the runs with music.

The authors suggest a possible explanation for this that jibes with past research: listening to music while running might provide a distraction from the otherwise uncomfortable stimuli of exercising on an already fatigued brain, and effectively reduce the perception of how hard one is working.

They also connect a part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex with cognitive tasks, perceiving exertion, and the processing of music during exercise.

A jazzercise class in Washington, D.C. Matt McClain for The Washington Post via Getty Images

A natural assumption might be that music, then, could undo the effects of a long day at work, which brings on a mental drain and could drag you down at the gym. However, it’s not necessarily clear from this study, which was very small. Further research is needed to know for sure or to know if the effects of the cognitive test used to bring on brain fog in the study can be likened to various vastly different workdays.

HOW THIS AFFECTS LONGEVITY — Anything that helps us work out and suffer less? We’ll take it, thanks. Exercise plays an outsized role in everything from reducing the risk of heart disease, maintaining brain health, and yes, even living longer.

But music isn’t limited in its potential powers as a personal trainer. It’s also a powerful mood booster in general, reducing stress hormones like cortisol and raising serotonin levels. In turn, it can dampen depression and anxiety — at least in the short term.

Music can even help with cognitive decline: It’s been used to help people with dementia recover memories, although its role in forming new memories or helping in learning is still unclear.

Music also may help with heart health generally: it helps lower blood pressure or raise it, based on the kind of music, and it has even been shown to help relieve pain.

HACK SCORE OUT OF 10 — 🎵🎵🎵🎵🎵🎵🎵 (7/10)

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