By Emma Young
Listening to music while exercising can make a work-out feel more pleasant. But might having some control over the sound of that music have an even stronger effect? A new study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, suggests that it does. In theory, this approach (known as known as “Jymmin” – gym plus jammin’…) might help injured athletes and other rehab patients to complete beneficial, but painful, exercise programmes. As the researchers, led by Thomas Fritz at the Max Planck Institute for Human Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, note, “Physical pain can present a significant obstacle to the success of physical exercise rehabilitation, increasing negative affect and decreasing patient motivation.”
Ten men and nine women, all in their twenties, worked out for ten minutes, in pairs, facing each other. One member of the pair used a cable lat pulldown machine (which exercises the latissimus dorsi muscle in the back, and also the biceps), while the other used an abdominal muscle trainer.
For one session, the exercise machines were hooked up to computer software that modified the music being played depending on how hard the participants worked. The fast-tempo (130 beats per minute) soundtrack featured a drum beat, bass guitar line and a melody played on a synthesiser. A faster rate of pulldowns on the lat/bicep machine altered the sound, so that the higher-frequency notes were more audible. For the other machine, more frequent sit-ups increased the pitch of the melody line.
For the other session, the participants heard the soundtracks created by other pairs – their own efforts had no effect on the music, although it remained upbeat. Some participants completed this session first, others did this one second.
Immediately after each exercise session, the participants took a pain tolerance test: they had to plunge their non-dominant hand and arm into painfully cold water and keep it there for as long as possible. After the exercise session in which they’d influenced the music, the participants kept their hands in the cold water for, on average, five seconds longer – an average of 50 seconds, compared with 45 seconds when they’d exercised without affecting the music.
Ideally, the researchers would have measured pain tolerance during the exercise. Practically, this would have been hard, though, which is why they did it afterwards. But they argue that the results indicate differences in pain tolerance during the two different exercise sessions.
The researchers suspect that being able to influence the music through exercise caused a bigger release of endogenous opioids, and that this explains the results. There are, though, other potential interpretations. What we pay attention to can have a huge influence on our perception of pain: perhaps when the participants were altering the melody, they paid more attention to the music, and less to their own physical state – and so felt less pain, and could tolerate more afterwards.
There are many other questions still to be answered, not least, whether the same effects might be observed in people exercising alone, rather than in pairs; whether the benefits of exercise conducted while influencing music would actually be as beneficial, in terms of rehab, as exercising while passively listening to music, even if the latter hurts more (in fact, the researchers found that when the participants had influence over the music, they actually worked less hard on the lat machine); and whether it could even reduce required painkiller dosages. It’s worth investigating further.