And the Beat Goes On: The Power of Music and Exercise

We’ve all been there. You’re on a run or in the middle of a workout, starting to feel a lag in energy when all of a sudden the perfect song blasts through your headphones.

“Yes, THAT’S my jam!!” I think, and suddenly I pump my legs faster and find a second wind out of nowhere.

For me that’s “Diamonds” by Rihanna. Maybe for you it’s Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” or David Guetta and Sia’s “Titanium. Whatever that song is, I can bet that you’re out there raising the volume on your iPods and moving a bit faster when that tune comes on.

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Music works like a magical cure-all when you’re exercising. It has the ability to distract you enough from the strain of what you’re doing, allowing you to focus your attention elsewhere while your body does the work. This is essential for me since I tend to over-analyze pretty much everything at all hours of the day.

Music can motivate you with the right lyrics and tone. Why do you think the theme song to Chariots of Fire is often used in exercise montages?

And the right tempo can truly elevate you reach new heights of endurance and speed where you’re inspired to try harder as you go against the music beat for beat.

How does that work?

The research on this subject is broad and diverse. In a recent study by Dr. Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, a leading expert in the psychology of exercise music, he compared music to “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

Ferris Jabr of Scientific American recently reviewed the research behind the relationship between music and exercise performance. Jabr notes that there are several important qualities to music, including tempo and rhythm response, which play a significant role in how the brain processes the sound and relays the information to our muscles.

To make some broad generalizations, fast songs with strong beats are particularly stimulating, so they fill most people’s workout playlists. In a recent survey of 184 college students, for example, the most popular types of exercise music were hip-hop (27.7 percent), rock (24 percent) and pop (20.3 percent). Some psychologists have suggested that people have an innate preference for rhythms at a frequency of two hertz, which is equivalent to 120 beats per minute (bpm), or two beats per second. When asked to tap their fingers or walk, many people unconsciously settle into a rhythm of 120 bpm. And an analysis of more than 74,000 popular songs produced between 1960 and 1990 found that 120 bpm was the most prevalent pulse.

Synchronicity between the beat of the music and the pace of a workout doesn’t necessarily enhance performance nor is it a preference for most people, but it may help the body use energy more efficiently.

Dr. Carl Foster of the University of Wisconsin, argues our innate tendency to move in time with music goes back to rowers of ancient Rome who coordinated their rowing with the beat of drums. Foster says it’s our brain’s natural response that makes us “want to step at the rate the music is playing or… pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music.”

A study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness last year, revealed that cyclists who timed their pedaling with the same tempo as their music, reduced their oxygen uptake by 7%.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for music’s impact on exercise performance is the positive psychological affect various songs have on the ability to improve a workout.

Queuing up a playlist with the scientifically proven ratio of bpm to movement isn’t always the best course of action. A big piece of the formula here is the emotional tie a person may have to a particular song or series of songs that can do more to help increase motivation and self-efficacy.

As Jabr states,

Selecting the most effective workout music is not as simple as queuing up a series of fast, high-energy songs. One should also consider the memories, emotions and associations that different songs evoke. For some people, the extent to which they identify with the singer’s emotional state and viewpoint determines how motivated they feel. And, in some cases, the rhythms of the underlying melody may not be as important as the cadence of the lyrics.

Earlier I mentioned that “Diamonds” from Rihanna was a particular favorite of mine. Clocking in at 92 bpm, this song doesn’t hit that sweet spot of tempo and rhythm. But for some reason, when I hear this song come on during a run, I feel uplifted and the urge to keep moving. I’ve caught on to this reaction and now strategically place this song towards the middle or end of my runs because I know it will give me the push I need to continue through the end of the song, instead of stopping altogether.

So why does this song do that for me? “Diamonds” was released in the weeks before Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast last Fall. The week I spent without power or heat at home, was filled with the sounds coming from our battery-operated radio. As a new single, the song was on repeatedly and became a sort of anthem that I took on personally. The impact of that week was far-reaching and music played a big part of that emotional journey, especially since conserving battery power made those music-filled moments so precious.

When that song plays, I’m brought back to that moment in time and that’s a powerful experience in and of itself. It’s a bittersweet memory that serves as both a source of comfort and inspiration for me now.

I imagine each of us has that same relationship with any number of songs and that you find yourself walking or moving differently as an expression of the intensity of emotion that a song may inspire in that moment. It’s just natural.

The science backs up what I’ve already thought to be true, and that is the positive benefits of music to get our bodies moving and improve well-being. Music has been a part of culture and society throughout human history and it’s an integral part of who we are.

The incredible number of apps and devices available on the market that highlight tailored workout music and calculating performance is astronomical. Researchers and marketers alike are aware of the power of music and its role in exercise.

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Music makes us happy! Just be sure to keep your hands  on the handlebars.

We’re instinctively attuned to the power of beats and rhythm. Have you ever been able to resist moving in even the slightest way when an irresistible song plays? Nope? Yeah, me either.

Do you listen to music when you exercise? What’s your favorite genre of music? How does it make you feel?

As always, keep paying it forward. Stay healthy! 🙂

Cited Sources:

Why I Gave Up Paleo and “Dieting” in General

Diet is such an ugly word, isn’t it? It’s pretty strange when you consider that the word is really just a straightforward expression of your overall eating habits. We’ve attributed so many negative characteristics to it, that upon hearing the word, there’s an immediate and almost knee-jerk reaction in protest to the very idea of following a ‘diet.’

The word diet is synonymous with a kind of self-torture where you’re either not eating enough or eating too much of foods that you can’t stand all in the effort to slim down. People want to lose weight but dieting to lose weight is perceived as a grueling, mental and physical exercise that weeds out the weak. But really, once you strip away all of that negativity, it’s just a summation of what we eat, isn’t it?

Well, I wont be so naive as to say that I’m immune to that knee-jerk response when the word is thrown around. I hear diet and I think ‘fad’ as if it’s just a short-term solution with no real sustainability. And I also think of suffering. Unfathomable human suffering.

I’ve never been one for fad dieting. I didn’t try Atkins when that was the craze or buy all the South Beach books. In fact I was pretty lazy in the food department and just gave myself a pat on the back if I managed to downgrade my milk from whole to 2%.

That all changed four years ago when I got back from living in Prague where I was drinking beer by the liter and eating whatever went with said beer, and I stepped on the scale and saw that I had reached my highest weight ever. This is what I looked like. That wasn’t a good time.

my before picture

It took a lot of discipline and sacrifice, but I slowly started changing my habits and yes, my diet, to lose weight. Eventually I incorporated more rigorous exercise and taught myself as much as I could about food so that I could make lasting changes. It took a long time and a LOT of hard work, but I did it, mostly on my own and with a steadfast determination to reach my goals. And now?

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Thirty pounds lighter and a realized passion for nutrition and health led me to this blog last year. And so we come full circle. Why this little walk down memory lane?

Well, I think back to about this time a year ago when I started joining groups on Facebook and Twitter that catered to this Paleo diet. The first time I’d heard about the diet from a friend, I thought it was a joke.

“You eat like cavemen? That makes absolutely NO sense!”, I exclaimed. I laughed it off as a fad and went about my day. 

Another friend and I both agreed that it seemed extreme and kind of fringe and beyond what either one of us thought was sound. I was pretty vehement about it actually. There was no way in hell I was going to do this to myself and anyone who does is crazy.

And this is why you never say never.

Around the beginning of fall last year, I wanted to take my fitness regiment to the next level. I’d done most of my working out alone and I wanted something that would really challenge me to do more. I became enamored with Crossfit. I mean, look at these women!

Courtesy: Reebok Crossfit Games
Courtesy: Reebok Crossfit Games

How could I not want to be at the top of my game by doing what these people are doing? I wanted to throw tires and lift 150lbs over my head. And yes, I’d even adopt the paleo lifestyle if that’s what it would take to get me there.

I thought about the premise of my blog as a judgement-free zone where I could explore food and nutrition in public view with the intention of encouraging others to share their thoughts with me. I set out to determine what works for me and that remains my mission statement. I also made a promise to approach life with my eyes open, without judgement, and with a dedication to explore. So I thought it was time to stop putting the hate on paleo and do my due diligence to figure out what the fuss was all about.

I’d experimented with several gluten-free recipes and spent time researching how that diet evolved into the mega-popular phenomenon that it is now. Cutting out breads and all grains didn’t seem like such a huge leap, although no pasta would take some adjustment. Going without peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and big pasta plates seemed minor compared to the results I was hoping to get from paleo and eventually crossfit.

Courtesy: Balanced Bites
Courtesy: Balanced Bites

And the more I read about paleo, the more I started to see the advantages. The diet calls for a total elimination of processed foods which I was already doing because of my clean-eating philosophy. I felt that I wasn’t eating enough meat so following paleo seemed like a good incentive to get more meat protein in my diet. All of this and a commitment to eating the highest quality foods produced organically and GMO-free seemed like a major win. After considering those benefits, I decided it seemed like an easy transition, and I made up my mind that I was going to do this.

It was amazing. I felt like I had more energy. My stomach appeared flatter and I didn’t have any problems with snacking or being hungry between meals. I also had a creative streak in the kitchen where I got to experiment with food in a different way. You can see some of those recipes here on this blog last fall. All of that was genuine fun and I didn’t foresee any changes to the plan.

Then Hurricane Sandy happened.

Initially I thought it’d be good to try to maintain paleo throughout the week and then blog about it afterward. That lasted for one day.

After day three of no power and no hot water and then an exhausting hunt for food and supplies that took me all the way to the upper east side of Manhattan (a three-hour roundtrip that day from there and home), I stood in the bread aisle at Fairway and shrugged by tired shoulders. I just couldn’t care at that point. Not when I knew I didn’t have a refrigerator to preserve the meat and vegetables. And not while my city was falling apart. I had bigger concerns in that moment and none of them involved worrying about “cheating” on a diet. I snagged the rugelach cookies and went home with whatever wouldn’t go bad to get us through the week, processed or not.

I was off the bandwagon from that week on. Maybe it was just the overwhelming power of sugar and it’s ability to get you hooked like a drug addict. Or maybe I’m just not strong-willed enough to join the ranks of the paleo devotees. Whatever it was, I started to punch big holes through the diet and the tide shifted. I was no longer held captive by the allure of primal eating. Life felt too short and too precious to me at the time. I didn’t want to spend any of it obsessing over what I was eating.

Which, by the way, is exactly what I was doing. Obsessing. Nitpicking. Over-analyzing. I realized a lot about myself during that strange week immediately after Sandy. There are aspects to my relationship with food that are ugly and the roots of that dysfunction are buried very deep. While I’ve managed to dig out some of that nastiness, I find that my past comes back to haunt me every now and then, and usually when my guard is down.

My experiment with paleo caused a few of those ghosts to come back which was a shock on several levels. I thought I’d shut the door on this kind of disordered eating. Hell, I’m a grown woman writing a blog about this for crying out loud. I’m over it…aren’t I?

The truth is, no, I wasn’t. I can’t blame the founders of paleo for this and it’d be ridiculous to start pointing fingers. It was a trigger that I guess I was primed for at that particular moment. All of that emphasis on food and diet was like an overload on my system.

Following a diet, paleo or gluten free or anything with a strict guideline of do’s and don’ts, switches on my obsessive compulsion and then turns the knob to max. I’d read articles where people would claim how paleo was the easiest diet to follow and it didn’t require a whole lot of thought to maintain. I always found that so confusing because for me it was far from easy.

I said earlier how I felt great physically and had more energy. A lot of that energy went towards stressing out over what my next meal was going to be. I became obsessed with the black and white nature of the “rules” and what I was allowed to eat. I started feeling panic or anxiety if I was invited to go out and I couldn’t find something to eat that was paleo. Food was always on my mind, especially while writing a blog centered on food and health.

What forced me to realize that something was off were several comments made from close friends. These people know of my past issues with food and they sniffed out something was wrong pretty quickly. The comments were lighthearted initially and I’d reassure them that everything was all right and that I was happy with the change.

After some time their patience faded and one friend told me outright that she thought this was becoming an unhealthy obsession and she was worried. It felt like I’d been gutted. I was upset at being confronted so directly and for something that I didn’t agree with, but I realized that was all bullshit because really I was just embarrassed, and moreover terrified.

What’s happening? I thought.

What I was doing secretly and hadn’t told anyone at that point was that I started binge eating again. And really, it’s less about what you’re eating, and more the behavior that gets to you. It’s the sneakiness of the act and the shame associated with it that made me just want to ignore what was going on. Once my friends stepped in, I couldn’t avoid it anymore. Everything crumbled. I sat there and cried, completely torn apart because I realized that she was right. This was wrong. I’d known it all along but I had reverted to old patterns and ignored it because I didn’t want to deal with the fact that I was back there again.

And that was where I broke. I took some time off from the blog and walked away from this world for a little while because I needed to figure out what I was going to do to put myself back together. I had to confront why this diet had triggered this behavior and where my obsessiveness comes from. In some ways, I’m still doing that to this day. Something I had to admit to myself is that I’ll be figuring that out in some way for the rest of my life.

See, the thing is that dieting and all the inherent meaning behind it is really only as meaningful as we make it. Since this happened last fall, I’ve thought a lot about etymology and the meaning we give words. We’re conditioned by our families and our environments to attribute values with various moral implications to words and go about our lives using them with those biases.

I constantly think about how I perceive myself when I look in the mirror and the words I choose to describe my reflection. More often than not, those words are harsh and critical. I repeat past offenses in my head. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I went into paleo for the wrong reason. It was never about me. It was always about correcting that distorted reflection at whatever cost.

With meditation and my affirmation-based life coaching programs, I’ve made a concerted effort to take those biases down piece by piece in order to reshape the meaning of those words to better fit a philosophy based on love and peace. This includes the word “diet” and “beautiful” and “healthy” and all of the associated meanings that go with, especially with my recent episode of a lifelong dysfunctional relationship with food. More importantly, I had to learn to forgive myself first. So much of this rides on a deep-seeded insecurity that strips more than just confidence. I blamed myself for being weak and for not being enough, and in some ways, this was how I punished myself too. Without forgiving myself for the thought and for my actions, I can’t hope to get beyond this point.  Now, this is a priority and it’s something I’ve devoted myself to entirely.

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I still believe in clean-eating and there are many foods that I don’t eat because I’m striving to keep my healthy lifestyle intact for a long time. You’ll find me posting recipes that cater to paleo, gluten-free, vegan, or vegetarian simply because I don’t find fault with experimenting with different diets to try and find delicious recipes that are wholesome and nutritious. The difference now is that I’m not choosing to obsess over just one path. Besides, I enjoy a lot of that food!

And yes, there are times when I second-guess what I ordered at a restaurant or experience regret hours after I’ve eaten my meal. I don’t expect that to go away anytime soon.

What’s made the difference to me with all of this has been the practice of meditation and a new openness that I have with myself. Each time I begin to experience that anxiety with food, I stop and breathe. I write it down if I can. I keep affirmations on my phone. I talk about it with a friend. I let the anxiety out so that I don’t have to hide behind anything or pretend.

It’s not easy. There are good days and bad days. I walk a fine line between a healthy lifestyle that encompasses both mind and body and a desire to be stronger and fitter which requires a close eye on my diet. I often struggle with balancing both ideals and it’s something I work at every single day. I needed to realize that I was worth more than what I was giving myself credit for and I settle way too often for less than the best in almost everything. It’s the giver in me. Seems a shame that it’s easier for me to give to others and not give equal attention to myself.

All of this is to reinforce what I’ve said from the beginning. There is no single plan that works for everyone. I’ve met plenty of people who are on a paleo diet and loving life. And the same goes for other diet plans. But you have to listen to yourself to decide what works for you. You want to lose weight? Awesome. Why? Get honest with yourself about what your intentions and priorities are before you dive headfirst into a major lifestyle change. Stay true to what makes you unique and don’t settle for anything less.

Have a similar story you want to share? Drop me a line and let me know. Keep paying it forward, now and always. ♥

5 Ways Thanksgiving Might Just Save my Life

I almost ran away today. Literally, I was this close to grabbing my bag and booking. No turning back, no slowing down, just straight to Go. Not even collecting the $200 on my way out.

In the lead-up to this year’s Thanksgiving I find myself with a lot of thoughts about the shape my life has taken in the past five months. I suppose the timing is right. We’ve got six weeks left in the year, so I might as well get started with the resolution frenzy for 2013. I’m punctual, which is a good thing.

So, let’s get back to this “shape my life has taken” bit that I just mentioned. I’ve spent lots of time here talking about fear and the desire to take control of my life by going after my goals proactively and without reservations. I spoke affirmatively about the future and fought to choke that fear back to make decisions from a place of strength. I even bought red lipstick! (check that off the ol’ bucket list) But I’m still compelled to bolt. Just walk out the door of my lackluster adult life and cross the threshold into a better one.

This feeling has reached a fever pitch since the hurricane. It may sound trite (in fact, it is trite and that’s because it’s true) but the storm forced me to realize that life is just way too short to be spending it dreaming up an elaborate escape plan on a nearly daily basis. So what of it then? What do I do?

I wrote this down last night on my whiteboard:

Because to put it simply, these four words are the point. Don’t over-analyze here (although I’m desperate to do that because I always do that). Stop procrastinating and live the life you want to live.

In an effort to take my own advice, I’m applying this same logic to my Thanksgiving holiday. I stress. A lot. I’m very ‘type A’ and hyper organized to the point of obnoxious when it comes to projects, especially cooking. And I don’t like to share my space. If I’m cooking, stay out of the kitchen. My mom gets the only pass. Just saying.

That’s old Maribel. Here’s what I’m going to try and do to break free of this rigid (my root chakra!) persona and let loose this holiday for the sake of my sanity and my poor family’s sanity. Taking a page out of my blogger friend Ilene’s recent post “15 Things I’ve Learned about the Impossible” after her Philly marathon run, I’m going to list 5 things I must do this Thanksgiving:

  1. Let my family in the kitchen. It’s simple, but so huge. The whole point of the holiday is to share it with my loved ones so why not start with the hearth, and that’s the kitchen. You’re all welcome! Just don’t spill anything.
  2. Don’t freak out about the bread or the butter. Or the cake. Just because I’m trying to stay paleo doesn’t mean that everyone else is too. Or that I should either on Thanksgiving. Take a chill pill for just one day and get back to it on Friday.
  3. Openly share what I’m thankful for with my family. This may sound odd but we don’t actually go around the table and say what we’re thankful for after the prayer. I think this is tradition for most families, but we just sort of skip that part and go straight to eating. This year I want my family to hear from me how much I love and appreciate them because they don’t hear it enough and we don’t say it enough.
  4. Spend some time this weekend and the months ahead with others in need. I’ve made a commitment to help at a soup kitchen this Sunday and I’ll also be partaking in the wonderful bake sale auction this Saturday to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.  I like to end my posts by asking my readers to pay it forward. It’s time to step up and really practice what I preach. By the way, please click the link above if you’d like to take part in the auction yourself.
  5. Cut myself some slack. Not just in the kitchen but in general. It’s been a challenging year for different reasons, but the important thing to remember is that I’ve made some big positive changes to help me get here. And here is way better than where I was 6 months ago.

This feels like one solid step forward towards…well I really don’t know where, but the crucial thing is it’s forward. I have a lot of big decisions to make the next couple of months about the “where.” For now I have a lot to be thankful for right where I am. 🙂

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