Listening To Music While Exercising May Help Avoid Fatigue

A new neuroimaging study has found evidence suggesting that listening to music could help people ward off fatigue while exercising. The study, recently published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, found that increased activity within a particular region of the brain was witnessed when listening to music while exercising and that this activity was correlated with a dampened feeling of fatigue.

Marcelo Bigliassi of Brunel University London, the study’s author, explains that while researchers have been investigating the effects of music on exercise for over 100 years, it’s still largely unknown how music might boost performance, promote a general positive affect, or reduce fatigue. Bigliassi says that employing brain imaging devices like fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), EEG (electroencephalography), and fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) has granted scientists greater insight into how music affects the brain during the course of exercise.

The Role Of The Inferior Frontal Gyrus

The study recruited 19 participants, all healthy adults, and had them lie in an MRI scanner while they exercised. In order to get over the problem of how one can exercise when lying in an MRI machine, the researchers gave the test subjects a hand strengthener grip ring. The participants were then instructed to do 30 sets of grip exercises, and in some of the sets music was played for the test subjects (In this case, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine.)

The data the researchers collected implied that exposure to music caused more activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus, which seemed to indicate a greater level of excitement and more thoughts unrelated to exercise itself. The left inferior frontal gyrus is likely a response to the presence of music and increased activity within the area is associated with dampened exertional responses. In other words, the more activity this brain region shows, the less fatigue the participants of the study felt.

Bigliassi explains music is able to reduce negative bodily responses that occur during exercise, and that this psychophysical phenomenon is possible because the reduction is driven by a shift in attention that will end up creating “a more efficacious control of the musculature”.

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According to Bigliassi, there could be applications for this phenomenon in the fields of exercise and sport, and that other applied studies in those fields may wish to investigate it. Bigliassi also notes that determining the mechanisms behind the effect can actually open a new avenue for scientific inquiry into the responses of fatigue-related sensations to sensory modulation.

As an example, Bigliassi proposes that other forms of brain stimulation, such as electrical stimulation, could kick off a cascade of reactions that could amplify the execution of physical movements at medium or high intensities by reducing overall fatigue. Such an approach could be applied in exercise regimens for individuals who are highly likely to disengage from physical exercise regimes, and are frequently the people who need exercise the most (such as those who struggle with diabetes or obesity).

A different study done by Bigliassi used portable EEG devices to find that walking while listening to music was associated with a decreased level of focus, but an increased level of enjoyment and energy. The frontal/frontal-central areas of the cerebral cortex experienced a notable spike in beta waves during the study.

Possible Drawbacks

Despite his work on the positive effects of music, Bigliassi doesn’t wish to hype up the possible benefits of music too much. According to Bigliassi, there are legitimate concerns regarding the exaggeration of music and other stimuli’s benefits while exercising. Findings regarding the positive effects of music, or other stimuli, while doing intense activities are frequently exaggerated, which Bigliassi says probably results from a desire to escape reality and forms of pain or discomfort.

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Bigliassi explains that the past couple of decades have seen a massive increase in our understanding of the “psychophysical, psychological, and psychophysiological effects of music”. Yet Bigliassi warns that this explosion in understanding may have created a strange type of stimulus dependence, where people become more and more reliant on music to dodge discomfort or pain. Bigliassi worries that the next generation of people may have a decreased ability to tolerate symptoms of fatigue in the absence of music.

Bigliassi explains:

My view is that music and audiovisual stimuli can and should be used and promoted, but with due care. We should, perhaps, learn more about the joys of physical activity and develop methods/techniques to cope with the detrimental effects of fatigue (i.e., learn how to listen to our bodies and respect our biomechanical and physiological limitations).

Other Studies

Other recent studies have examined how music impacts people’s brains and bodies. One recent study found that music can have a therapeutic effect and improve both mood and quality of life for those in dementia. The findings were based on a review of 22 different studies that had examined music’s effects on over 1000 institutionalized patients.

Music may also even reduce pain in newborns. Two recent studies imply that pleasant melodies can reduce the discomfort felt by babies. One study was published in the journal Early Human Development and was a meta-analysis of thirteen different published papers, while the other study tested the response of 80 newborns to gentle harmonies and found that the music could seemingly reduce physical discomfort in the babies.

The review found that there was a significant effect on pain when music is heard, which supports the work of past researchers and of Bigliassi’s study. Meanwhile, the study that looked at the effects of music on newborns found that music could reduce the amount of pain felt by the infants when they underwent painful medical procedures like the drawing of blood samples or the injection of antibiotics. Some 80 newborns were randomly assigned to one of two groups: a group that had the procedures done in silence and a group that had the procedures done while Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata or Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos were playing. The authors of the study report that the use of music produced a significant decrease in the perception of pain and a decrease in heart rate (normally elevated by painful procedures).