Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Musical Feedback Makes Workouts Feel Easier

• October 14, 2013 • 12:00 PM


Exercise is less exhausting when you’re inspired by a musical soundtrack that mirrors the effort you are expending.

Do you listen to music while working out? Good idea: It can be an effective way to shift your focus from the discomfort that arises from strenuous exercise.

However, newly published research suggests it can play a much bigger role than mere distraction. Under certain conditions, music apparently helps your body use oxygen more efficiently, allowing you to get through a rigorous workout without feeling so exhausted.

This effect appears to be limited to circumstances where the music directly mirrors what you’re doing on the treadmill or training floor. But if these results are confirmed, entrepreneurs will no doubt be rushing products to the market that provide such feedback.

If music can make “physically taxing group activities” less exhausting, it may have evolved as a useful tool to facilitate the completion of essential societal projects.

The study, just posted online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted by a research team led by Thomas Hans Fritz of the University of Ghent and the Max Planck Institute. It featured 63 participants (mean age 28) who took part in two sets of a strenuous physical workout using three fitness machines: a tower, a stomach trainer, and a stepper. Afterwards, some of them took part in a separate regimen of isometric exercise.

All did their workout while listening to “rather simplistic electronic dance music” on portable devices. But for one set of exercises, they plugged into a musical feedback technology the researchers call “jymmin.” That’s a cross between “jammin’” and “gym.”

OK, the name needs work, but the technology is pretty cool. The music it plays reflects the wearer’s exertion level at any given moment. For example, when they were using the tower, “no sound except some very deep bass frequencies” was audible when they were not exerting force.

But as the weights were pulled, “the bass line and the beat would blend in their higher frequency spectrum,” the researchers report. Then, by triggering a synthesizer, “a simple melody on a software synthesizer could be created by moving the weights in the top range of displacement.”

This immediate musical response to their physical exertion had a positive effect on the exercisers. Although those listening to a standard musical soundtrack and those on this high-tech musical feedback look expended roughly the same amount of total force, the “perceived sense of exertion was significantly lower” for the latter group.

In other words, they did the same amount of work, but the effort didn’t feel as strenuous. The same result was found for the 22 participants who did the isometric exercises: They, too, reported their workout was less exhausting than when they performed the same regimen listening to a standard soundtrack.

Even more strikingly, the exercisers’ oxygen consumption was lower when they were receiving the musical feedback. “It thus rather appears that participants were able to apply a comparable amount of force using less oxygen,” the researchers write.

So why does this musical feedback allow us to work more efficiently? “We believe that the effects may be due to a greater proportion of emotional motor control due to musical ecstasy during the musical feedback condition,” Fritz wrote in an e-mail message.

He and his colleagues (who can be contacted at suspect another factor is “the calming effect of music, leading to reduced muscle tension and more efficient oxygenation.”

In addition, they write, “the musical feedback may have provided the participants with ‘virtual goals.’” Perhaps the fact they could manipulate the soundtrack by pushing themselves just a bit harder “enabled them to regulate and monitor the extent and timing of their movements more effectively.”

This is not only potentially good news for fitness buffs: It also provides intriguing evidence regarding the origins of music. If music can make “physically taxing group activities” less exhausting, the researchers speculate, it may have evolved as a useful tool to facilitate the completion of essential societal projects.

In other words, singing “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” all the live-long day just might have made it easier to hammer in those last few spikes. And the satisfaction you feel when music signals your effort is paying off may inspire you to work that much harder.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.

November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”

November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.

November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.

November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.

November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.

November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.

November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.

November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.

November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.

November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.

November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.

November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.

November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.

November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.

November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.

November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”

November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.

November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.

November 19 • 2:00 PM

Egg Freezing Isn’t the Feminist Issue You Think It Is

New benefits being offered by Apple and Facebook probably aren’t about discouraging women from becoming mothers at a “natural” age.

Follow us

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One company, Comcast, will control up to 40 percent of Internet service coverage in the U.S., and 19 of the top 20 cable markets, if a proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.