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Jockology: How music (and TV) helps (or hurts) your workout

November 12th, 2009

Over the past few months, I’ve posted a few links to interesting studies about the potential positive and negative effects of distractions on your workout. I decided to take a deeper look at the literature in this field, and put together a Jockology column that appears in today’s Globe and Mail on the topic.

The question

I love listening to music or watching TV when I exercise. How does that affect my workout?

The answer

In a forthcoming study, British researchers secretly sped up or slowed down music by 10 per cent and observed the effect on subjects riding exercise bikes. Sure enough, like marionettes on musical strings, the riders unconsciously sped up or slowed down.

The results add to a complex body of research on how distractions influence our exercise performance, extending far beyond the simple psych-up provided by motivational lyrics. Instead of just hitting shuffle next time you’re at the gym, you might be able to harness these benefits by taking control of your playlist to enhance your workout. [read on…]

Ultimately, it’s a pretty complicated stew of different (and sometimes conflicting) effects. You might be listening to a tune whose motivational lyrics urge you forward, but also distract you from the physical cues you might otherwise rely on to maintain your intensity. And you might find your breathing or stride rate locking in sync with the music — which could be good or bad, depending on the tempo. And all of those factors might be overridden by the simple question of how much you like the tune that’s playing. So for now, I think optimizing a playlist remains a matter of personal preference.

(And I almost hesitate to say this, because I realize I’m in a shrinking minority, but my own inclination is to exercise in silence. If I’m outside, I like hearing my surroundings, particularly if I’m in a nice forest or park. And in general, I like to let my thoughts wander aimlessly and free-associate. The problem with music, I find, is that I tend to really listen to it, so it guides and anesthetizes my thoughts. For the same reason, I can’t write with music on in the background — it grabs my attention too forcefully.)

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