Music Psychology

Can music help me keep fit?

Between 2008 and 2010 the UK government Foresight’s ‘Mental capital and wellbeing’ project considered how to improve a nations wellbeing through life. The Five Ways to Wellbeing were the resulting set of evidence-based public health messages.

These messages have recently been updated to reflect Five Ways to Wellbeing at a time of social distancing.

Even a small improvement in wellbeing can help to decrease health problems and help people to flourish. This document sets out 5 actions to improve personal wellbeing. The 5 ways to wellbeing are: Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give

Let’s look today at public health message number 2 – Be Active

I don’t know about you, but I am the owner of many muscles that could do with thawing from what feels like an endless winter in 2020. Music can be an excellent motivator in order to help me get going and pursue a more active lifestyle.

In my book You Are The Music, I described music as ergogenic, an agent that can enhance physical performance (especially sports and exercise). Scientific inquiry has revealed five ways in which music can influence activity levels:

  • Dissociation – music can narrow the focus of attention, diverting the mind from sensations of fatigue. This works well at low and medium intensity but not high intensity when the feedback from the body overrides messages from the music 
  • Arousal regulation – fostering an optimal mindset. Athletes use upbeat music to “psych up,” but softer selections can help “calm down” in the face of performance anxiety and/ or the need to focus on fine technique.

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  • Synchronization – especially during repetitive exercise, is associated with increased levels of work output. This applies to such activities as rowing, cycling, cross-country skiing, and running. Haile Gebrselassie is famous for setting world records running in time to the pop song “Scatman.” He selected this song because the tempo matched his target stride rate, to establish a steady, efficient cadence. 
  • Skill acquisition – music-accompanied dance and play creates opportunities to explore different planes of motion and improve coordination. This goes back to our childhoods where we begin a lifetime of encouragement to move in new and exciting ways to music. 

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  • Flow – The zenith of intrinsic motivation. Flow is when your level of energy is perfectly matched to whatever you are trying to do, whether that is something like exercising or studying, where you lose yourself in the task and time disappears. 

What kind of music helps us be active?

My colleagues and I recently looked at how music can impact on trail running. We were interested in how music that is matched to feedback from our own bodies could optimize activity. 

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In this new study, the tempo, melody, and timbral features of real time generated music were modulated according to biosensor input from each runner using a wearable wrist sensor, synchronized via Bluetooth. Participants were instructed to continue until their self-reported perceived effort went beyond an 18 using the Borg rating of perceived exertion.

The lead author, Duncan Williams, compared the performance of 54 people doing a trail running course with 76ft elevation (so pretty tough!) listening to music with either:

  1. heart-rate or 
  2. cadence synchronous tempos, 

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We found that cadence-synchronous music improved performance and decreased perceived effort in Male runners. 

For Female runners, cadence synchronous music improved performance but it was heart-rate synchronous music which significantly reduced perceived effort and allowed them to run the longest of all groups tested. 

“This work has implications for the future design and implementation of novel portable music systems and in music-assisted coaching” But what happens in the meantime, whilst smart systems for music-assisted exercise are being developed?

What can you do right now to help with your exercise/ keep fit plans?

My first piece of advice is to protect your ears. There is a danger of playing music too loud in personal headphones if you are out running in a noisy environment or in a gym with music already in the background. Have your music at the minimum level needed to be audible, and if that is still a high level then reconsider your use of music in that scenario. It is not worth the damage it may do to your sensitive inner ear.

My second piece of advice is to personalise your music for the type of exercise. I found I enjoyed and was motivated by different music if I was out power walking in the town vs. the countryside. It is a question of matching the tone of the music, its meaning to you, to the context. So be sensitive to what works for you and build personal music preference lists that you look forward to hearing on your chosen route or environment.

My final piece of advice is test the beats per minute (BPM) of your music. It is fun! Here is a good basic BPM calculator, but there are many similar apps out there. You play the music of your choice and then either tap in the screen to the beat or some apps will simply tell you directly the BPM of any track. For optimum support to exercise, research suggests you should be listening to music with a BPM ranges as follows:

  • Warming up for exercise: 100 to 140 BPM
  • Cooling down after exercise: 60 to 90 BPM
  • Yoga, pilates and other low-intensity activities: 60 to 90 BPM.
  • Power yoga: 100 to 140 BPM.
  • CrossFit, indoor cycling, or other forms of HIIT: 140 to 180-plus BPM.
  • Zumba and dance: 130 to 170 BPM.
  • Steady-state cardio, such as jogging: 120 to 140 BPM
  • Weightlifting and powerlifting: 130 to 150 BPM
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