Music often accompanies us on the track or at the gym. Many people experience positive effects on focus and endurance from music listening during exercise, as well as on recovery after physical activity. This link between music and movement and the experienced benefits of music listening have also intrigued scientists for decades, resulting in a great deal of investigation to uncover exactly how and why music exerts its benefits.
One of the latest additions to the line of research on the effects of music on exercise is a recently published study that tested how listening to music, exercising, and a combination of both, influences the functioning of the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for helping the body adapt to changing circumstances by influencing numerous functions, including digestion, sweating, breathing, and, most pertinent to the study in question, heart rate and blood pressure. The autonomic nervous system can be further divided into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The first is responsible for the “fight or flight” response – getting the body ready for action by increasing heart rate, sweating, blood pressure and by halting digestion. The latter is responsible for relaxation, recovery and rest.
Exercise requires activity of the sympathetic nervous system but after the exertion brought on by exercise, the faster the parasympathetic nervous system can kick in, the better. Previous research has shown that this reactivation of the parasympathetic system after exercise is enhanced in trained athletes and low in individuals with cardiovascular disease, meaning that being able to cool down quickly after exertion can signal good cardiac health.
Interestingly, relaxing music has been found to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and help the body lower blood pressure and heart rate. Could music then be used to help the body transition more quickly into recovery-mode after exercise?
In the study in question, the functioning of the autonomic nervous system was gauged with a test for something called “orthostatic tolerance” – meaning your body’s ability to adapt blood flow to the act of standing up. Standing up does not sound like extraordinary exertion on the body, but it does have a massive impact on blood flow that the cardiovascular system has to adapt to and is therefore a good way to assess the functioning of these aspects of the autonomic nervous system. When the body cannot adapt to the quick change of standing up, orthostatic intolerance occurs, leading to uncomfortable outcomes like dizziness, blurred vision, and heart palpitations. And sometimes, memes.
In the study, the participants first took the orthostatic tolerance test measuring heart rate, and heart rate variability as well as blood pressure. Then the participants took part in four different experimental sessions: 1) being still 2) listening to self-selected relaxing music 3) bicycling, and 4) a bicycling with relaxing music. After each session, the functioning of the autonomic nervous system was measured again with the orthostatic tolerance test to explore possible effects.
According to the results, listening to relaxing music increased parasympathetic nervous system activity signaled by changes in heart-rate variability when compared to just sitting still. Contrarily, exercise decreased parasympathetic nervous system activity compared to sitting still.
What happened on the level of the parasympathetic nervous system then when the two, music listening and exercise, were combined? In short, nothing, but sometimes in research nothing is exactly what you are looking for. According to the results, when music listening was combined with exercise, the decrease of parasympathetic nervous system activity caused by the physical exertion disappeared!
The results of the study suggest listening to relaxing music during exercise could be used to strengthen reactivation of the parasympathetic nervous system after exercise. This reactivation is important for good recovery and would help individuals more efficiently reap the benefits of physical activity.
The results of the study also suggest that the type of music you listen to during exercise can have profound effects on physiological responses related to recovery. Many of us may choose high-powered, fast-tempo music to give us an extra boost for example on a run or a cycling tour. However, if you’re looking for quicker recovery and better heart health, choosing music you find relaxing, not exciting, might actually be the way to go.
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