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Listening to music while you work out doesn’t just make the experience more fun—scientists have found music makes working out more effective, and could be the difference between a bronze medal and a gold.

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It's no secret that athletes love music: rumor has it, swimmer Michael Phelps listened to the Eminem song “‘Til I Collapse” before every race and gymnast Shawn Johnson jammed out to “Soul Rock ” by Ferras before every big meet. And that's because music not only puts them in a good mood, it might actually make the difference between bronze and gold.

Dozens of studies have found that listening to loud, uptempo music gets athletes working harder and helps them exercise longer. Which is why, of course, that's the kind of music you hear the moment you walk into any fitness center. But the real question is why this happens.

Part of the story, no doubt, has to do with how music makes people feel, since how you feel affects how you think and act. Music you like lifts your spirits, and in general, upbeat songs tend to make people feel happier. A 2014 study in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science showed certain songs can even evoke a sense of power.

When songs like “We Will Rock You” by Queen or 2Unlimited's “Get Ready for This” played in the background, the participants felt more powerful, and that led to them acting differently— doing things like choosing to go first in a debate or taking charge in an activity. This was especially attributable to bass sounds. When the experimenters chose an unfamiliar classical piece and artificially ratcheted up the bass, people in the study felt more powerful than when listening to the same track with the bass dialed down.

Other studies have similarly found that people are more willing to take athletic risks when music is playing. So when athletes hear a fast-tempo song with lots of bass, they might work harder or do better because the music makes them feel stronger and more confident. Basically, they feel empowered to shoot that long 3-pointer, or go for that triple axel.

Music can also help distract you from what your body is feeling, which is helpful if you want to push yourself. You can only process so much sensory information at once, so hearing music—especially loud music you can't tune out—draws your attention away from your sore muscles and your aching joints. This effect is especially strong with music—researchers have had subjects listen to audiobooks instead, and they feel more exhausted than music listeners, maybe because the words alone just aren't distracting enough.

Nevertheless, you can get my book in audio form, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, available wherever audiobooks are sold. [bell dings] Distraction can be a bad thing if you're doing something hard that takes a lot of coordination— basically, when you need to really focus to do well, like making that perfect putt. But if you're just trying to build stamina, or doing something automatic and repetitive like cycling, distracting music can help you last longer. Also, working out literally hurts less when you put on your favorite gym tracks.

That's because music can stimulate the release of natural opioids in the brain, dulling pain and helping you push your body harder. All of this might be part of why exercise feels easier when you've got good tunes. But it's still more than all of that, because studies have found you literally don't have to work as hard to perform the same action when you're listening to music.

In one study, researchers found that 61 participants used less oxygen—an objective measure of physical exertion—while lifting weights and listening to music. Similarly, researchers found that 10 trained runners had lower levels of lactate in their blood—a physiological sign of exertion—while running on a treadmill if they were listening to music. Why this happens isn't well understood, but it might be because of how our neurons react to a good rhythm.

It's called entrainment: basically, the neurons in your brain and the rest of your body sync to the beat, and that literally makes it easier on your muscles when you work out. Neurons in your brain, especially in the outer cerebral cortex, send electrical pulses in the form of brain waves. These can measured by putting a whole bunch of electronic sensors on a person's scalp—a test called an electroencephalogram or EEG.

And it turns out that when music gets pumped into your ear canal, the neurons in parts of your brain involved in hearing start to pulse in time with that musical beat. Brain waves in the motor cortex sync up as well. Before long, neurons all over your body are essentially swaying to the beat.

Unconscious actions like breathing begin to match the rhythm, like an athletic symphony. It's thought that this body-wide pacing helps your brain coordinate your muscles more efficiently, so it's easier for your limbs to perform repetitive movements, like flexing and releasing when you're lifting weights or rowing your arms while you swim. And when exercise is easier, you can do it better and for longer.

Music can also help you recover after that heart-pumping workout. A 2017 study found that slow music helped 42 participants relax after exercise, lowering their heart rates and stress hormone levels more than upbeat music or silence. So forget all your GNC muscle powders—if you really want to up your game, just try a little music.

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