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Why is music like a drug for athletes?

14 Oct 14

New technology, such as the Samsung Gear S, makes working out with your latest and greatest exercise playlists easier than ever. But what's the connection between music and exercise and why does a great rock song make us run that much faster?
The connection between music and exercise goes back hundreds of years and maybe even more, according to Carl Foster, Ph.D, of the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, Exercise and Health Program.

“You go all the way back to rowers on the Roman Galleys,” says Foster. “The guy is sitting there beating on his drum and he drives the basic rhythm of the rowing. Part of that is coordination - you want the rowers to row together - but part of it is that people will naturally follow a tempo. It’s just something about the way our brains work.”

Foster has lead research into music and exercise intensity at the University of Wisconsin for the past eight years, and says humans naturally align themselves with the beat of the music. “You want to step at the rate the music is playing or you want to pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music,” he says.

Another one of the world’s leading authorities on music and exercise is Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., from London’s Brunel University School of Sport and Education.

Having spent the past 20 years researching the links between music and exercise, Karageorghis says there are three primary ways music influences exercise. Music increases the desire to move, has us naturally moving in time with the beat and distracts us from exercise related discomfort.

“[Music] can reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent,” Karageorghis says. “Music is a legal drug for athletes.”

Karageorghis has said there are advantages to using a portable music device. “It gives you constant stimulus, rather than just an occasional one, and you can tailor the playlist to your taste.”

The faster the beat, the higher the intensity and enjoyment. Therefore, Foster recommends choosing songs that have a distinct rhythm with an appropriate beats per minute (bpm) or tempo. For instance, power-walking songs have 137-139 bpm which running has 147-169 bpm.

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