Hitting the Gym? Science Proves Bringing an iPod and Some Friends is a Good Idea.


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Other than the stench of sweat and the agony of exercise, the two worst things about the gym are the people who insist on working out in groups and the awful music. In my experience, musclemen (and women) working out together often leads to long lines for machines as they take turns outdoing one another, using rest breaks to discuss the latest supplement they’ve been taking or admiring their muscles. Trainers often say that working out with others can be motivating, as long as all involved are at similar levels of fitness and stick to the gym times agreed upon. But until recently, I didn’t know that this was proven by science. The performance of an athlete is boosted when he/she is doing an activity in a group, according to an Oxford study. My beliefs about working out with music were also based on personal experience rather than fact. To me it felt better to plug my ears and listen to metal than have to put up with the Top 40 hits being played at the gym. It turns out that music has been scientifically proven to have a bearing on an athlete’s performance, too.

A 2009 Oxford study called “Rowers’ high: behavioral synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds” led by Cohen, Ejsmond-Frey, Knight and Dunbar tested the pain tolerance of twelve athletes from Oxford’s rowing team. The investigation focused on gauging the release of endorphins, chemicals produced by the body that create a feeling of well-being and euphoria, under the assumption that they also increase pain tolerance. Though the researchers note that the mechanisms for endorphin release are unclear, they explain that endorphins are usually present in high quantities during social interactions between humans. They selected rowing for the experiment because it is a group activity that requires synchronization and not just individual power output. The machines that the rowers used at the gym made it easy to run individual or group tests in a stable environment. Also, the athletes were of similar age and fitness. The researchers tested individuals in 45 minute sessions on ergometers, with none of the other athletes present, and recorded their power output. 5 to 10 minutes after each session, a blood pressure cuff was applied to the athlete’s arm and inflated until he felt physical pain. Then, the experimenters tested the subjects in groups of six in a synchronized ergometer setup or “virtual boat.” The entire experiment was conducted over the period of a week and repeated twice. The researchers found that the power output of each rower remained almost the same in both individual tests and group tests. But their pain thresholds were greatly increased during group exercise. They concluded that exercising in a group causes greater opioid production, and thus better performance.

Several studies have attempted to explain how music affects us when we exercise. One study from 2010 entitled “Effect of music tempo upon submaximal cycling performance,” led by Waterhouse, Hudson and Edwards tested 12 male college students on stationary bicycles. The men were given headphones and told to ride for thirty minutes at a preferred pace while listening to 6 songs selected by the researchers. In one trial, the songs were played at their normal tempos but for the two other trials, the tempos were either increased or decreased by ten percent unbeknownst to the riders. When the music was made faster, the riders covered more distance and power per pedal stroke increased. The opposite happened when it was slowed down. With the faster tempo, the riders reported feeling that the workout was harder, yet each was motivated to keep up the pace. In a study called “Alleviating Choking: The Sounds of Distraction,” researchers Mesagno, Marchant and Morris tested 41 female basketball players, some of whom were identified as “choking-susceptible,” in high-pressure situations. They found that the players were more consistent on the free-throw line when they listened to upbeat music before shooting. Humans are said to be among several species that can feel the beat of music. The way we feel music during a workout is a combination of the nervous system and the brain’s response. Our heart rate naturally aligns with the tempo, our breathing quickens and biochemicals are released. But a 2004 study called, “The effect of music type on running perseverance and coping with effort sensations” by Tenenbaum, Lidor, Lavyan and others showed that runners at peak performance (90% of maximum oxygen intake), were not helped by music. As the tempo increased, their paces remained the same.

My recommendation for casual gym-goers is much like the wisdom that trainers have been giving out for years: bring a friend but be considerate of others working individually. And maybe go on your computer and tweak the tempos of some of your favorite songs to encourage yourself to work out with more power and speed.

Sources:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/phys-ed-does-music-make-you-exercise-harder/

http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2009/09/14/rsbl.2009.0670.full

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