Music Can Be Rocket Fuel for Turbocharging Your Workouts

A new study by researchers at McMasters University found that listening to music has the power to make high-intensity exercise a more enjoyable experience for people from all walks of life. The October 2016 report was published in the Journal of Sports Sciences

All animals seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, the pain of going all-out during a workout is something that most people will inherently try to avoid. One of the biggest obstacles for sticking with a vigorous exercise regimen is that sprint exercise training feels like a very disagreeable experience…or what I sometimes call a “sufferfest.”

But there is good news. Even for people doing high-intensity exercise for the first time, the researchers at McMasters found that listening to music increased their positive attitudes about exercising vigorously for a short burst of time. The lack of negative associations made them more likely to repeat this behavior in the future. 

The positive associations created by listening to music while breaking a sweat made it more likely for study participants to seek interval training and make it a part of their weekly routine. Surely, anyone who listens to music while working out can corroborate these empirical findings based on your personal life experience. 

Too Busy to Workout for 50 Minutes a Day? Interval Training Is a Quick Fix

In a perfect world, everybody would have the time, energy, and motivation to accumulate a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week. Obviously, this is not the case. If you are crunched for time, sprint interval training (SIT) can help you reap the same benefits as a much longer workout, in a shorter time.

In April 2016, another team of researchers at McMaster University reported that it only takes 10 minutes of SIT to produce health benefits similar to longer periods of moderate-intensity aerobic training.

SIT training typically consists of three 20-second high-intensity cycling sprints followed by a few minutes of easy cycling for recovery between the difficult sprints. This workout only takes a total of 10 minutes, which includes a 2-minute warm-up and 3-minute cool down. You can apply the SIT method of high-intensity training to any cardiorespiratory activity. *Please consult with your physician before beginning any type of new exercise regimen.

In a statement to McMasters, Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology and lead author on the study, said,

“Most people cite ‘lack of time’ as the main reason for not being active. Our study shows that an interval-based approach can be more efficient—you can get health and fitness benefits comparable to the traditional approach, in less time.

This is a very time-efficient workout strategy. Brief bursts of intense exercise are remarkably effective . . . The basic principles apply to many forms of exercise. Climbing a few flights of stairs on your lunch hour can provide a quick and effective workout. The health benefits are significant.”

For this McMasters study, the researchers wanted to determine how very short bursts of sprint interval training (SIT) compared to the longer sessions of moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT), recommended in public health guidelines.

The researchers compared the results of the anaerobic SIT workouts with a group who performed 45 minutes of continuous cycling at a moderate aerobic pace, that included the same warm up and cool down. After 12 weeks of training, the results were remarkably similar—even though the MICT protocol involved five times as much exercise and a five-fold greater time commitment. 

If you need another source of motivation for doing sprint intervals, a February 2016 study by researchers from the Sports Medicine Program at the University of California, Davis reported that short bouts of high-intensity exercise may help to optimize brain function. Vigorous exercise appears to increase levels of two key neurotransmitters (Cortical Glutamate and GABA) that have neurotherapeutic potential. 

Listening to Music Can ‘Lift You to a Higher Ground’ in Life and Sport

I know from personal experience that listening to music makes exercise an enjoyable experience. For me, the combination of listening to an amazing playlist on shuffle mode and breaking a sweat while working out is an ecstatic process. Music was the prime driving force that enabled me to break a Guinness World Record on a treadmill at the Flagship Kiehl’s store in the East Village in 2004 by running 153.76 miles in 24 hours. This event was fueled by an endless playlist of Shep Pettibone and John “Jellybean” Benitez remixed Madonna songs blasting from a turbocharged loudspeaker. 

My love of Madonna music and obsession with her live performances started when I was an adolescent struggling withsubstance abuse and the shame of being gay. On a rainy Sunday night in 1983, I used my well-worn fake I.D. to go see Madonna perform at The Metro, a small gay club on Landsdowne Street in Boston. I was seventeen at the time. And, I was a completely unathletic teenager who identified as a party monster. Madonna wasn’t famous yet, but her phenomenal charisma was palpable and contagious. It was clear to everyone in the audience she would become a superstar.

Seeing Madonna perform in a small nightclub in the early ’80s changed the trajectory of my life. The morning after her concert, I rushed to the Strawberries record store in Kenmore Square and bought Madonna’s first album.

The Walkman had recently been invented, so I went home and made a mixed tape with the first Madonna LP on Side A and Bruce Springsteen’s album Greetings from Asbury Park on Side B. “Flashdance.. What a Feeling” was my coming of age anthem that summer. I recorded the 12″ remix of “Flashdance” at the end of each side of the cassette and would hear it every time the auto-reverse clicked back over to the other side.

Listening to this uplifting music in the headphones of my Walkman gave me such a rush that I had to go for a run that afternoon to get all the adrenaline out of my system. Over the next few months, I listened to this mixed tape every day and continued to run faster and farther during every workout. 

Emulating Madonna’s chutzpah day in and day out taught me how to be comfortable in my own skin which gave me the confidence to come out of the closet and push beyond my limits as an athlete. Through her music and live performances, Madonna became my role model and mentor. 

By the late 1980s, Madonna was at the zenith of her career. And her live performances continued to inspire me on a daily basis. Luckily, my friend David who owned the (recently closed) Rebel Rebel record store on Bleecker St. in the West Village was able to get me bootleg CDs of Madonna’s 1990 Blond Ambition tour. I recorded the concert on a high-quality Maxell tape to play on my bright yellow sweat-proof Sony Sports Walkman. 

While training for Ironman triathlons in Central Park and at the Printing House gym on Hudson Street throughout the ’90s, I would listen to this tour incessantly from beginning to end. One of my pre-race rituals was always to listen to the live version of “Like a Prayer” a few times in the predawn hours before heading to the starting line while visualizing myself having a transcendent and ecstatic race. 

I credit the invention of the Walkman and Madonna with being the two prime motivating forces that inspired me to become an ultra-endurance athlete. In The Athlete’s Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss, I give Madonna a shout-out in the acknowledgments. On p. 336 I write, “Thank you for laying the brain chips of excellence and fearlessness when I was seventeen and for being rocket fuel during every workout ever since.”

Earlier this week, Madonna was named the Billboard 2016 Woman of the Year. Her recent Rebel Heart Tour was one of the most successful tours of all time. In 2016, Madonna sold more than 1 million concert tickets around the world. This makes her the highest grossing solo touring artist of all time in Billboard Boxscore history—with a staggering $1.31 billion in total concert grosses since 1990.

Madonna is living proof that staying vigorously active combined with listening to music has the power to increase your longevity, optimize creative output, and take your life to a higher ground. If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Todayblog post “The Neuroscience of Madonna’s Enduring Success.”

What Is Superfluidity?

Watching Madonna’s live performances illuminates the highest tier of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. I call flow’s upper echelon “superfluidity.” After seeing Madonna perform “Like a Prayer” live in concert in 1990, I had to tag the frictionless state of existence and peak performance she achieves by giving it a name. I chose superfluidity, which is a term I borrowed from the world of physics. Superfluidity represents the superflow of helium in a laboratory and sounds like it feels in an onomatopeia kind of way.  

From a psychological perspective, superfluidity describes a transcendent state of consciousness in which you feel as if your mind, body, and brain are operating with absolutely zero friction, viscosity, or entropy.

At around 5:41 minutes into the “Like a Prayer” performance (below) it seems that Madonna enters a state of superfluidity in which there is absolutely zero friction or viscosity between her movements and emotions. From my point of view, It almost appears like she’s having an out-of-body experience as she becomes a whirling dervish towards the end of the song. 

Witnessing the transcendent ecstasy of this performance always reminds me of Marghanita Laski’s seminal book, Ecstasy In Secular and Religious Experiences and inspires me to seek these type of mystical experiences as an athlete.

To this day, whenever I’m running out of gas during a workout, I’ll play a live Madonna performance such as “Like a Prayer,” “Express Yourself,” or “Vogue” on YouTube and watch the video on my smartphone while I’m on the treadmill. I know I’m dating myself, but these songs never fail to give me the extra oomph I need to finish my workouts feeling strong. 

What Songs Inspire You to Get Off the Couch and Kickstart a Workout? 

As I get older, I’ve noticed that listening to songs from my young adulthood seem to take me back to the energy levels I had during that phase of my youth on an epigenetic and neurobiological level. Sure, there will always be a new song on the radio that makes me want to workout at a high-intensity, but it’s also helpful to have a playlist filled with an arsenal of timeless classics that always take me there.

Every individual has a unique blend of musical artists and anthems that inspire him or her. What songs inspire you? Please take some time to compile a list of songs that make you want to get up and move. The latest research proves that listening to this music whenever you want to turbocharge your workouts and kick it up a notch will make your regular aerobic workouts and high-intensity intervals more enjoyable.

Ideally, for peak fitness, your weekly exercise routine should consist of a broad range of workouts that includes: short bursts of intense interval training, longer endurance training at a lower heart rate, and “tempo” workouts at a vigorous intensity for a medium amount of time.

Also, once your doctor gives you the OK to do sprint interval training, the latest research suggests that a 10-minute workout that includes 60 seconds of all-out effort has the same benefits as a 50-minute workout at moderate intensity. Remember, listening to music while working out makes exercise feel good which will make you more likely to stick with it and make daily physical activity a habit. 

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