The Healing Power of the Music, Fitness Connection

A growing number of people have discovered how music can help dissolve their daily tension, physical problems such as migraines and the emotional problems of anxiety and depression. Music and fitness share a common bond in that they both block out or redirect stress hormones, lower blood pressure, ease anxiety, energize and sooth us and improve our focus. When music and fitness merge, an even stronger bond is formed. We as fitness and healthcare professionals have the opportunity to use this music-fitness connection in our aquatic and group exercise classes and personal training and therapy sessions. This makes us all therapists of sorts, and the end result of a class or session is a total mind/body treatment.

The healing power of music is part of the medicinal arsenal that aids us in returning to our fitness activities after an initial illness or injury. Music relaxes us, which causes the release of endorphins (the “feel good” hormones). These endorphins create a way to manage pain and help us return sooner to our fitness activities.

Aerobic exercise promotes the release of endorphins, helping the brain to block pain signals. Exercise can also reduce the side effects of depression and anxiety that often result from chronic pain; swimming or aqua aerobics in a warm pool are extremely beneficial for this chronic pain. Not only do these endorphins help with pain, but they also help keep stress hormones (such as cortisol) in check. When our brain perceives any type of bodily stress, the hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland, which then tells our adrenal glands to produce cortisol. By keeping control of stress hormones, whether through regular exercise and/or listening to music, we might be able to help prevent degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Music soothes the stress of chemotherapy in cancer patients, who are often stricken with anxiety and emotional upset during treatment. A study conducted by Barrie Cassileth, PhD, proved that out of 69 adult patients, those who received music therapy reported 37 percent less total mood disturbance and 28 percent less anxiety than the other patients.1

Just as the properties of water work as an analgesic to relieve the physical strain and pain of exercise, so does music. Music has a positive effect on exercise in that it distracts people from the effort, thus also taking their mind off the strain and pain. Researchers, such as Luis F. Aragòn-Vargas, PhD, agree that music’s positive effect on endurance and exercise performance allows people to work out longer and with more intensity. An added bonus is that music adds enjoyment-especially when it is music you like. For those in need of an “easy-on-the-joints” workout, water exercise will give you this. When combined with music, this type of workout will give you the benefits of resistance training with the added bonus of endurance, improved performance and enjoyment.

Do you know a musician who is also a good athlete? I have seen many in my years of teaching and training. Playing a musical instrument can sharpen your senses, improve coordination and give you a keener sense of timing. These are also the ingredients needed in athletic training.

Two studies where music, silence and static noise were used as control factors produced interesting results. In one study, the strength of the immune system was measured against these three factors. In the group exposed to silence, their immune systems showed no response and remained at the same level. Those subjected to static noise showed a lowered immune system response, while the group that listened to music showed an increase in the strength of their immune system. When using these same three control factors in an exercise bike test, the findings were that those who listened to music traveled 11 percent farther. In yet another eight-week walking study at Ohio State University, using subjects with serious lung disease, results showed that those who listened to music walked 21 percent farther than those who did not listen to music.

One method of combining music and fitness has shown positive behavioral changes when used with autistic children. This beneficial medium is thought to be due to music’s non-verbal and non-threatening nature. One may only need to find the child’s preferred music, and then it can be utilized. There is no style of music more beneficial than another. Music that the individual is particularly fond of will always have the best therapeutic effect. Using music in a game setting perfectly combines music with fitness. These can be simple activities such as passing a ball back and forth to music. Michelle Dozois, International fitness presenter, has discovered music’s profound effect with her autistic son. Music’s mood-changing effect is apparent as it calms him. “It changes his demeanor instantly,” says Michelle. “Music wakes up the body and mind in a therapeutic way.”

Physical therapy is an excellent example of using music for movement. Sharlynn Landers, PT, MPT, has used sound in working with patients on improving their gait. The “scuff” of the feet produces auditory recognition and enables the therapist and patient to detect differences or similarities in the sound of each foot.

Many healthcare professionals today use music to stimulate motor function. Patients with nerve impairment from Parkinson’s disease or a stroke have seen improvement from the benefit of music therapy.

Dr. Oliver Sacks, known for his book Awakenings (also made into a feature film), turned his early love of music into his work in music therapy. The patients he wrote about in his book were struck by a form of encephalitis that left them in a comatose state. They rarely moved and did not speak. Being convinced that “someone” was still inside each of them, Dr. Sacks used music to bring them out of this state. He found that playing the right music enabled them to change their stuttering steps even to the point of dancing.

Dr. Sacks also worked with Tourette’s Syndrome patients. He found that many musicians did not have tics while performing and that athletes showed similar relief when engaged in athletic activity. Dr. Sacks personally felt the healing power of music after tearing his own hamstring. When his physical therapist played music during his session, he was distracted and walked normally. He lost his ability to walk with ease when the music stopped.

Music intellectually refreshes us, and we are then able to perform better throughout our day. Music clarifies our thinking patterns, which enables us to make better decisions. Studies have shown that listening to music such as a composition by Mozart prior to taking an exam produces higher scores. Thus, one of the slogans of recent years was “Mozart Makes You Smarter.” Musical vibrations stimulate hearing and enhance brain development, so playing music when you are pregnant may improve your child’s IQ. It has been suggested to listen to slow, soft nurturing music such as Mozart’s, which mimics a mother’s heartbeat.

We know that exercise strengthens the heart and lungs, but many studies have shown proof that, just as with music, exercise also builds up the brain. Studies have suggested a positive effect of physical activity on brain function, especially in older adults. A recent finding using brain scans of men and women ages 66 to 89 found that those who were more physically active had better focusing abilities and were less easily distracted. Another study with 90 healthy, older women showed better memories and quicker reaction times resulting from a long-term exercise program. Adding music to a workout can produce a psycho-physiological effect whereby the participant is more highly motivated and able to exert his or her self more easily, with the end result being a higher performance level.

By using the power of music and fitness to heal, we can bridge from illness to health. We can thereby become more fit, strengthen our immune system and be led to better health and an overall well-being. Music has the power to not only enhance our workout, but also to give us the fitness connection between musical sound and sound health.

By Lori Pine

Lori Pine, MA, is the Programs Director at In Motion Fitness in Chico, California. She is an ACE. certified Personal Trainer, APEX certified Nutritional Counselor, holds a specialty certificate in Youth Fitness, is a Power Bar sponsored athlete, and has 25+ years experience working with youth and adults in schools, the community and the fitness industry. Lori also organizes special events and charitable activities including the BAM fitness conference.

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