It is no real secret that music has a profound effect on exercise. The use of music to enhance exercise performance has been dated back as early as the ancient games of Greece and is still widely used today. Whether it’s music that’s playing over the loud speakers at the gym or music that’s playing from an mp3 player of a runner, music just seems to go hand in hand with exercising. But what is it about the music that makes it so appealing to exercisers, and what affect does music have on the physiology of exercise?
This was exactly the question that I was looking to answer in my most recent research study that I had the opportunity to present last week. The title of my research study was “The Physiological Effects of Music on Exercise”. That may sound all fancy and everything but really what I was specifically looking at was how the tempo of music could alter exercise intensity and how that would affect something called the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) during exercise.
The RPE (or rating of perceived exertion) is basically just a measurement that measures how hard an individual feels like they are exercising on a scale from 6-20. A rating of 6 would basically mean that the subject is sleeping and a 20 would be like sprinting as fast as possible up a flight of stairs at high altitude with a ravenous gorilla throwing poo at you. So for example, if someone were walking their dog they would most likely be at an 8 and if someone were out for a comfortable jog they would be at about a 12-13. The weird 6-20 just comes from the fact that the number is supposed to correlate with the subject’s heart rate by a factor of ten. So if the subject was at a RPE of 6 then their heart rate would theoretically be at 60bpm and if they were at 12 then their heart rate would theoretically be at 120bpm. It is a rather simple scale but is surprisingly accurate when matching heart rate to RPE.
So back to the music and what I was measuring; lately there have been many mobile apps and devices released that claim to “enhance your performance” by using music to keep you exercising at a harder pace than you would normally exercise. It turns out that what these apps actually do is take a given song and alter the tempo of the song to match your heart rate while you are exercising. So if you were to run faster, the tempo of the music would increase and if you run slower, the tempo of the music would decrease. The idea is that by matching the tempo of the music to your own heart rate while exercising, your rating of perceived exertion would decrease at a given intensity so that you could exercise harder without actually feeling like you were actually going that hard, this would allow you to exercise at an intensity that would normally feel like a 15, but now feels like a 13 because of the music. This means that exercisers could increase the intensity of their exercises without even felling like they were increasing the intensity. What I was testing in my research was if that really works or not.
The design of my experiment was pretty simple, I had subjects exercise at 3 different exercise intensities that were each progressively more difficult on a stationary bicycle (35watts, 70watts, and 140watts), measured their heart rate, matched the tempo of a given song to their heart rate and recorded their rating of perceived exertion every 30 seconds. I repeated that procedure 2 more times, once without any music at all to act as a control, and once with music that did not change tempo to see if it was purely just the music itself that made the difference an d not the music that matches your heart rate.
What I found was actually quite surprising. According to my results there was really no significant difference in the rating of perceived exertion between any of the trials! That means that adding music or music that matched the subject’s heart rate had no effect on the subject’s rating of perceived exertion at all during exercise. This is quite interesting because that would suggest that music doesn’t make exercise feel any easy than it does without music.
This then begs the question of what is actually happening when people feel that music makes their workouts more enjoyable. According to my study the music we listen to during exercise and the music that matches our heart rate with the apps makes no difference on how hard we feel like we are exercising. So if you are exercising at a perceived exertion of 15, adding music or adding music that matches your heart rate still ends up with a perceived exertion of 15.
That is kind of cool that it disproves what many of the apps that alter the tempo of music claim to do, but it still leaves us wondering what is going on. So it’s back to the drawing board for another research study to find out what is going on. I have a hunch that we may be able to find a different result if we were to measure something other than the rating of perceived exertion. The rating of perceived exertion is a great measurement but it is measuring something that doesn’t really change at a given intensity. If you are at a heart rate of 145bpm and your RPE is 14, then adding music will still have your heart rate at 145bpm and should come up with the same result of a RPE of 14 because it is measuring purely how hard you feel like you are going. What I am measuring for the next experiment is the somewhat of a measurement of enjoyment and willingness to stop exercising. Instead of measuring how hard an exerciser feels like they are going, I am going to measure how much the person is enjoying the exercise and how willing they would be to stop exercising when presented with the chance. This would then measure how much music adds to the enjoyment of exercise, which is very important because it is much easier to get someone to exercise harder or more often when they enjoy exercising.