The Power Of Music During Exercise

Benefits of High Intensity Interval Training

Catherine O’Brien

Good music can be a significant motivating factor during exercise.

In my experience, a good playlist boosts excitement and energy throughout my workout.  I love pairing my music to match my workout and intensity whether it be a fast paced pop playlist paired with a HIIT circuit, an upbeat country playlist paired with a trail run, or a soft rock playlist paired with stretching. In this way, music can set the mood during a workout and make the experience more enjoyable.

Related Article: Why Music Motivates A Workout

Fortunately, music enhances your workout in more ways than one. Recent research has demonstrated that exercising with music may enhance the cognitive benefits associated with exercise and help preserve key brain areas important for cognitive function.

We know that exercise has numerous benefits ranging across physical, psychological and cognitive domains. In previous articles, I have discussed other factors that accompany exercising and the ability for these variables to influence performance and outcomes (i.e. presence of competition, environment etc.). In this article, I am excited to discuss some new research that focuses on the role of music during exercise and how pairing exercise with music may yield greater cognitive benefits.

Related Article: Improve Pace By Running With Others

The Study

The aim of the present study was to investigate if exercising with music produced greater cognitive benefits than exercising without music or not exercising at all. Participants were older adults (age 65+) and the intervention took place over the course of one year. In the Exercise (EX) and Exercise + Music (EXM) conditions, participants exercised once a week for 1 hour.

These exercise sessions included:

  1. Warmup

  2. Rhythmic walking

  3. Rhythmic exercise

  4. Muscle training

  5. Stretching

  6. Rhythmic step

  7. Cool down

The intensity of the sessions increased week over week. In the EXM condition, the participants completed the 1-hour session while listening to music that played in harmony with the exercise. Participants in the EX condition “heard percussive sound which counted the beat” (Satoh et al, 2014. p.3) but not music. Participants in the control conditions did not engage in exercise during the intervention period but did complete the same the pre and post testing.

Pre and Post Intervention Assessments

Neuropsychological and physiological assessments were administered pre and post intervention. This testing including the Mini Mental State Examination (MMSE) to measure cognitive ability and the Raven’s Colored Progressive Matrices (RCPM) to measure intellectual function. The Logical Memory (LM) test was administered to test memory.

All participants had MRI scans pre and post intervention to measure gray and white matter volume in than brain as well as volume of brain areas involved in cognitive processing. At baseline, there was no difference between groups gender ratio, age, education, activities of daily living, MMSE score or gray matter volume (GMV). There was, however, a significant difference in white matter volume (WMV) at baseline such that the WMV of the control group was greater at baseline.

The Results

mature woman exercising with musicResults indicated no significant difference in post intervention GMV between the groups. That said, the exercise (EX) and exercise with music (EXM) groups did demonstrate preserved / larger volume of key brain areas compared to the control group.

The frontal gyrus, cingulate, temporal gyrus, insula, parahippocampal gyrus, hippocampus, uncus, fusiform gyrus, thalamus, amygdala, middle occipital gyrus and cerebellum all demonstrated significantly larger volume at post-test compared to the control group.

These differences were present when comparing EX to Control and EXM to control. In this way, the results show that the exercise and exercise + music intervention were effective at preserving brain volume in key areas associated with cognitive function. Scores on neuropsychological testing followed this same pattern and aligned with the physiological findings in that the logical memory scores improved for the EX and EXM groups as a result of the intervention. The hippocampus and parahippocampal gyrus are the brain areas most closely associated with memory so this result is reinforced by the preservation of these two brain areas.

The Outcomes

There were differences in outcomes between EX and EXM groups, however. The EXM participants showed greater volume in the right superior frontal gyrus. The other key way in which the outcome for the EXM group was unique was how the GMV related to the neuropsychological measures. When comparing the EXM to the control group, there was a significant change in visuospatial scores. These scores were “positively correlated with the volumes of the left superior temporal gyrus, right anterior cingulate gyrus, and left insula.

The Findings

So what do these findings tell us? First, in line with previous research, the present study demonstrated the protective effects of exercise on the brain. Both exercise groups exhibited preserved brain volume in key brain areas compared to the non-exercising control group. Second, exercising with music supported preservation of the right superior frontal gyrus (this was not observed for the exercise without music condition). Finally, exercising with music led to increased scores on visuospatial testing and this improvement was positively correlated with the structural changes (volume preservation) in the left superior temporal gyrus, right anterior cingulate gyrus, and left insula.

The Takeaway:

Maximize the cognitive benefits of your workout and help preserve brain volume by incorporating music that is harmonic to your routine.


Related Article: Exercise-Induced Increases In Brain Size


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Satoh, M., Ogawa, J-I., Tokita, T., Nakaguchi, N., Nakao, K., Kida, H., and Tomimoto, H. (2014) The effects of physical exercise with music on cognitive function of elderly people: Mihama-Kiho Project. PLoS ONE 9(4), 1-8.

Tabei K., Satoh, M., Ogawa, J., Tokita, T., Nakaguchi, N., Nakao, K., Kida, H., and Tomimoto, H. (2017) Physical exercise with music reduces gray and white matter loss in frontal cortex of elderly people: The Mihama-Kiho scan project. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 9(174), 1-12.

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