Workout music and your supplementary motor cortex

Why do we like to listen to tunes when we exercise? Psychologist Tom Stafford searches for answers within our brains, not the muscles we are exercising.

Perhaps you have a favourite playlist for going to the gym or the park. Even if you haven’t, you’re certain to have seen joggers running along with headphones in their ears. Lots of us love to exercise to music, feeling like it helps to reduce effort and increase endurance. As a psychologist, the interesting thing for me is not just whether music helps when exercising, but how it helps.

One thing is certain, the answer lies within our brains, not the muscles we are exercising. A clue comes from an ingenious study, which managed to separate the benefits of practicing a movement from the benefits of training the muscle that does the movement. If you think that sounds peculiar, several studies have shown that the act of imagining making a movement produces significant strength gains. The benefit isn’t a big as if you practiced making the movement for real, but still the benefit of thinking about the movement can account for over half of the benefit of practice. So asking people to carry out an imaginary practice task allows us to see the benefit of just thinking about a movement, and separates this from the benefit of making it.

Imaginary practice helps because it increases the strength of the signal sent from the movement areas of the brain to the muscles. Using electrodes you can record the size of this signal, and demonstrate that after imaginary practice people are able to send a stronger, more coherent signal to the muscles.

The signals to move the muscles start in an area of the brain called, unsurprisingly, the motor cortex. It’s in the middle near the top. Part of this motor area is known as the supplementary motor cortex. Originally thought to be involved in more complex movements, this area has since been shown to be particularly active at the point we’re planning to make a movement, and especially crucial for the timing of these actions. So, this specific part of the brain does a very important job during exercise, it is responsible for deciding exactly when to act. Once you’ve realised that a vital part of most sporting performance is not just how fast or how strong you can move, but the effort of deciding when to move, then you can begin to appreciate why music might be so helpful.

The benefits of music are largest for self-paced exercise – in other words those sports where some of the work involved is in deciding when to act, as well as how to act. This means all paced exercises, like rowing or running, rather than un-paced exercises like judo or football. My speculation is that music helps us perform by taking over a vital piece of the task of moving, the rhythm travels in through our ears and down our auditory pathways to the supplementary motor area. There it joins forces with brain activity that is signalling when to move, helping us to keep pace by providing an external timing signal. Or to use a sporting metaphor, it not only helps us out of the starting blocks but it helps to keep us going until we reach the line.

Of course there are lots of other reasons we might exercise to music. For example, a friend of mine who jogs told me: “I started running to music so I didn’t have to listen to my own laboured breathing.” He might well have started for that reason, but now I’ll bet the rhythm of the music he listens to helps him keep pace through his run. As one song might have put it, music lets us get physical.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original had the much more accessible title of “The Psychology of Workout music“, but mindhacks.com is our site (dammit) and I can re-title how I want.

6 Comments

  1. Posted June 24, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    My reason for listening to music while gymming is that I music deviates my mind from thinking again n again that how tired and exhausted I’m feeling. Without music my brain is constantly chattering “Man! I’m so tired!”

  2. Kathy K.
    Posted June 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    As I was reading your article, I was reminded of visualization techniques that elite athletes use in training and competition.

    As to the benefit of music, I can personally attest to its power. I power walk for app. 53 minutes 6 days a week and have been doing this for the past 10 months. I could not do this without the right kind of music because the strong rhythmic beat lets my body fall into a natural cadence without having to think about my movements. This allows my brain to think, meditate, introspect, and reflect. At the end of my workout, I often get the sensation that I have traveled through time.

  3. Posted June 25, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on AlmostHumor By BlotterMonkey and commented:
    Why do we like to listen to tunes when we exercise? And how does imagining our workout make us stronger? [MindHacks]

  4. Shai-Hulud
    Posted June 25, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    “My speculation is that music helps us perform by taking over a vital piece of the task of moving, the rhythm travels in through our ears and down our auditory pathways to the supplementary motor area. There it joins forces with brain activity that is signalling when to move, helping us to keep pace by providing an external timing signal.”

    Rhythmic music and metronome beats have been shown to have some positive effect on the gait of Parkinsonian patients (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22166406, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1353802006001155). There are a few interesting youtube videos possibly demonstrating this effect (e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZLTZkBzO6k). I wonder, if it is the same principle underlying the cueing effect of auditory beats on walking and initianiting other paced movements.

  5. Iszie
    Posted June 26, 2013 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    I wonder if this is also the reason why people, like myself, who experience auditory hallucinations, also find that certain body parts twitch, move as well as feel very real bodily sensations depending on the conversation in our mind.

  6. Posted June 27, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    I heard (on NPR, don’t hate me for no sources) that people drive more safely when music is playing. If that’s true, I wonder if this explains it.

    Also wondering if this answers the “evolutionary cheesecake” argument. As I recall Professor Pinker had a back and forth argument with another researcher who had a tantrum over the dismissal.


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