Exercise musicology

There are many tools, or ergogenic aids, athletes use to improve exercise performance. These include nutrients like protein and carbohydrates, drugs like caffeine, steroids, and techniques like blood doping. Some of these performance-enhancing substances are illegal or banned, so ergogenic aids often have a negative image. Furthermore, many only work for highly trained athletes.

But there is one ergogenic aid that has been shown to enhance performance in everyone. In fact, there is a good chance you use it when you exercise. That ergogenic aid is music. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Music is a psychological ergogenic aid is known to affect mood, emotion, and cognition. More and more research also shows that music can also enhance exercise performance. In most gyms, there is music playing in the background and many people listening to music using headphones while they exercise. A practical reason, of course, is that listening to music makes the exercise more enjoyable by providing a mental distraction. It turns out that music has additional psychological and physiological effects that can improve exercise performance.

Not only can listening to music make exercise more enjoyable, it can also help you get a better workout. Research suggests that when exercise is coupled with motivational music, people tend to exercise at a higher intensity. They also tend to fatigue at a slower rate leading to longer exercise sessions. This is also associated with a lower rating of perceived exertion, meaning the exercise might feel easier!

Tempo is an important aspect of music that contributes to performance. People tend to prefer a tempo that matches the exercise intensity. Fast tempo music fits well with higher intensity exercise, like running, and music with a slower tempo is suited for lower intensity exercise, like yoga. But music tempo can also influence the intensity of exercise. Music with a faster tempo can promote more vigorous exercise, as measured by a higher heart rate, and a longer distance covered when running or cycling.

Listening to music before exercise can also affect performance. Studies have shown that listening to music prior to exercise can improve motivation, arousal, and focus. This is probably why you see athletes warming up before games and races wearing headphones. Research also suggests that listening to music during cool down can decrease recovery times, as measured by blood lactate levels.

While listening to music may increase exercise performance, the benefits vary based on the type of music. First of all, music that a person does not like is unlikely to elicit any positive impact on performance, so pick something you enjoy listening to. Another factor of music that can influence performance is whether it is synchronous or asynchronous. Synchronous is when a person matches their movements with the music they are listening to. This is particularly effective for running, cycling, and rhythmic exercises like aerobics. Asynchronous is when the music and the movements of a person do not match, which may still provide ergogenic benefits for certain types of exercise.

Listening to music during exercise can make your workouts more effective and enjoyable. Music you like can distract you from sensations of intensity and fatigue and lead to longer training sessions. Music played at a fast tempo can make you exercise harder and slower tempo music can help you relax. But you probably knew that already—sometimes sports science makes sense!

What if you prefer to exercise without music or other distractions? Like all ergogenic aids, the additional effect of music is small compared to the great benefits of the exercise itself, so keep doing what you are doing.


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Going back to the gym

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that most of us are spending more time working, learning, and exercising at home. While it is possible to get a good workout at home, going to the gym provides equipment, classes, and social support you probably don’t have at home. Now that many businesses, including fitness centers, are reopening, you may be keen to move your workouts back to the gym.

Despite the reopening of businesses, the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 is still a very real and urgent health concern. Hopefully, your gym is taking extra precautions with social distancing, hygiene, and cleaning to make it safer for staff and members. Here are some additional suggestions to reduce your risk of exposing yourself to coronavirus (and other viruses and bacteria, too) when return to the gym.

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  1. If you are sick, please stay home! For the safety of others, you should be symptom-free when you go to the gym. In fact, they may screen you at the door to make sure. You can still do light activity with mild symptoms at home, but it’s best to take the day off if you have a cough or fever.
  2. Wash your hands with soap and water before and after your workout. If that’s not an option, using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (at least 60% alcohol) is okay, too.
  3. Use the provided disinfectant spray to wipe down equipment, including weights, before and after you use it. Many people are good about wiping sweat from benches, seats, and other equipment but skip cleaning barbells, dumbbells, and other hand-held gear. Make sure you spray and wipe thoroughly.
  4. As much as you can, keep your distance from other people. This includes social distancing in the gym from people you are close to outside the gym. Your gym may already have blocked access to some equipment to maintain social distancing, but you should make an effort, too. If your favorite exercise equipment or group exercise class is not available, ask the staff for suggestions of other things to try.  

If your gym isn’t reopening yet or if you decide not to go, you can still get a good workout at home. If you need ideas, try one of the many mobile apps that will guide you through a variety workouts, some using nothing more than your body weight. And being active outdoors is always good for your physical and mental health. Even if you go with a friend, the risk of virus spread is lower outdoors, especially if you keep appropriate distance between you. 

Finally, make sure you follow the rules at your gym. The safe return to normal activities requires that everyone participates faithfully. Fitness facilities have specific regulations they must adhere to in order to reopen, so be careful not to jeopardize that. 

Remember, your goal is to keep yourself and the people close to you as healthy as possible. Regular exercise is essential for doing that, but only if you can do it safely. And don’t forget that good nutrition, getting enough sleep, and finding a way to manage your stress are also critical for physical and mental health.

Go ride your bike!

This is a great time to go for a bike ride. Aside from being a great way to get around, bicycling can improve physical, mental, and social health, and has environmental and economic benefits.This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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“Is it okay to be overweight if you are fit?” is the wrong question. Instead, ask “Is it ever okay to be unfit?”

I get a lot of questions about nutrition, exercise, and health. Given the considerable uncertainty and misinformation about these topics, it comes as no surprise that people have questions. Sometimes there are no clear answers to these questions. And sometimes the question itself shifts the focus away from a more important aspect of health. This is true of one of the most common questions I get: Is it okay to be obese if I exercise?

The idea that it is okay to be fat if you are fit is not new. In fact, decades of research shows that being obese but physically fit is associated with a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than being thin but unfit. When assessing health risks associated with obesity, fitness matters. That said, excess body fat can lead to other health problems, even if you are fit.

A better question would be, Is it ever okay be unfit? The answer is no! This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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There is no question that being physically fit can improve your health, reduce your risk of developing certain chronic diseases like heart disease and some cancers, and help you live a longer, healthier life. This is true even when you take body fatness into account. People who are overweight or obese should have more health problems and die sooner, but many don’t.

The difference is physical fitness. Men and women who are obese but physically fit have a lower risk of serious health problems than those who are obese but unfit and, surprisingly, even lower than people who are at a “healthy” body weight but unfit. This suggests that a “healthy” body weight has less to do with weight and more to do with fitness.

This relationship holds true even when you start adding in other health problems, like high blood pressure or diabetes. Even though obesity is associated with and thought to cause these conditions, physical fitness seems to reduce the risk significantly. Again, this suggests some of the health problems linked to obesity may be due, at least in part, to low physical fitness.

Physical fitness in these studies typically refers to cardiorespiratory or aerobic fitness measured during in exercise test on a treadmill or stationary bike. A broader definition of fitness also includes muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility. You can improve your fitness by participating in regular exercise to develop your endurance, strength, and flexibility. The benefits are linked to the intensity and duration of the exercise, so the more you do, the better your fitness, but substantial benefits can be achieved from walking for 30 minutes per day.

In the much of the research, subjects were divided into five fitness categories. The most significant differences in health and longevity were seen when comparing the highest and lowest fitness groups. But the biggest reduction in health risk was between the lowest fitness and the next highest group. This means that becoming even a little more fit is beneficial.

If you are overweight, becoming more fit may matter as much as losing weight for improving your health. If you don’t need to lose weight, remember that there is no such thing as a healthy weight unless you are fit. Regardless of your weight, everyone can benefit from regular exercise to achieve and maintain the strength, endurance, and flexibility necessary for good health and wellbeing.


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Go nuts!

Eating nuts can be a tasty way to make your diet healthier. Nuts are beneficial because they are rich in healthy unsaturated fats, fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals. Nuts also contain omega-3 fats and natural plant sterols which, together, may help lower your blood cholesterol and reduce your risk of heaving a heart attack. But all foods that contain nuts are not equally healthy, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Mixed nuts


Although the specific nutrients vary among different nuts, all nuts are thought to be healthy. This includes tree nuts such as almonds, macadamia nuts, walnuts, and pecans, which have the most research to support their health benefits. But it also includes peanuts, which are actually legumes (like beans), not true nuts.

Research suggests that regular nut consumption is associated with a lower risk of dying from many of the leading causes of death, including heart disease and cancer. One study examined a host of lifestyle factors, including physical activity, smoking, and diet, in over 100,000 men and women for nearly 30 years.

The reduction of risk of death was greater with more frequent nut consumption. For example, the risk of death from all causes was 11% lower among men and women who consumed nuts once per week and 20% lower among those who ate nuts seven or more times per week. This was true for both peanut and tree nut consumption, suggesting that all nuts are beneficial.

It is important to note that the people in the study who ate the most nuts were also leaner, consumed more fruits and vegetables, less likely to smoke, more likely to exercise, and more likely to use multi-vitamin supplements. Although these other factors were controlled for in the analysis, common sense suggests that the benefits associated with nut consumption is likely due to a combination of these beneficial health behaviors.

The bottom line is that eating nuts as part of an overall healthy lifestyle is good for you. A person who eats in unhealthy diet, doesn’t exercise, and smokes is unlikely undo the negative health impact of their lifestyle simply by eating more nuts. Achieving the full benefits of nut consumption seen in the study also certainly means adopting other healthy behaviors.

The good news is that adding nuts to your diet is an easy change to make. A typical recommendation for nut consumption is 1-1.5 ounces per day. This is the equivalent of a handful of most nuts. The goal would be use nuts to replace a less healthy snack such as chips. A handful of nuts contains about 150-200 calories, similar to other snacks such a small bag of potato chips. The difference is that nuts contain healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which may fill you up more. Nuts are relatively inexpensive and portable, meaning you can take them with you for a snack. Nuts can also be added to salads and other dishes.

Keep in mind that you should focus on eating plain nuts to get the biggest benefits. Many nuts have added flavors in the form of coatings, glazes, and seasonings, which may be high in sugar and salt. Honey roasted peanuts and chocolate covered almonds are good examples of nuts that are essentially candy. These types of nuts should be eaten sparingly and for dessert, not as a snack.

Similarly, peanut butter (and other nut butters) are a healthy source of protein and energy. But many contain added sugar as some contain other ingredients like chocolate. In fact, many “nut” butters don’t contain nuts at all and are essentially frosting!

To learn more about the difference between plain nuts and nuts that are essentially candy, check out Candy and Soda for Breakfast!

So, go ahead and go nuts! Just remember to do it as part of an otherwise healthy diet and active lifestyle.

Go (and eat) green for Earth Day

Since Earth Day is this is a good time to think about the impact we have on our environment and what we can do to reduce that impact. The good news is there are ways we can “go green” that are good for our health and the health of our planet, as I explain in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

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Outdoor exercise during allergy season

Now that we are all spending much of our time at home, more and more people are seeking ways to exercise outdoors. Obviously, rules about social distancing apply, so avoid exercising in groups and keep your distance from people you meet along the way. Walking, running, and cycling are great ways to be active and are appropriate to do alone, with your immediate family, or your dog. But this also means dealing with seasonal allergies, which can make being active outdoors unpleasant for allergy sufferers.

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Healthy stress management (because we need it right now)

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Working or learning from home? Don’t forget about recess!

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, many adults and children are settling into a new routine of working and learning from home. Children and their new teachers—often parents and grandparents—are finding ways to complete schoolwork at home, often with limited guidance or resources. For people working from home, that means finding ways to be productive, often while caring for and homeschooling children.

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Most teachers and schools have provided assignments that cover the major subjects kids would do in school: English, math science, and social studies. It is critical to continue learning these subjects even when schools are closed. But a school day also includes other subjects like art, music, and PE. Unfortunately, projects for these subjects are probably not included in the distance learning resources provided by schools.

Far from a distraction, opportunities to be creative and physically active in school support and enhance learning and should be included at home, too. Research shows that physical activity can positively affect several factors that are related to academic performance. These include skills (attention, concentration, and memory), behaviors (classroom conduct and homework completion), and academic achievement (test scores and grades).

Regular physical activity is also essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of obesity and related health problems in children, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Physical activity is also a great way to reduce feelings of stress, something that is especially relevant now.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. All of these opportunities for activity can be part of a school day at home. Even if you aren’t a PE teacher, giving kids time to be active and play is critical to their health, learning, and wellbeing, so make sure you include recess in your home school plan.

Almost any activity counts, even if it is not structured. Active play, practicing sports, walking the dog, and running or bicycling around the neighborhood are excellent options. Given social distancing recommendations, it’s best to do these activities individually or as a family and to avoid public places like playgrounds. You can find ideas for PE activities at home online, many of which would make a good workout for adults, too. Even taking short breaks to get up and move throughout the day can have health and cognitive benefits

This isn’t just for kids—adults need recess, too! Prolonged sitting in your home office has been linked to negative health effects that are similar to those of not exercising. Even among people who do exercise, those who spend more time sitting tend to have more health problems than those who are more active during the day.

Taking short breaks at work also improves attention and productivity. In fact, many time management and productivity techniques include periods of focused work separated by breaks. Since most work is done sitting at a desk or in front of a computer, these breaks can be used to get up and move. Together with dedicating time every day for exercise, these activity breaks can contribute to meeting physical activity recommendations and can add up to serious health benefits.


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Working (out) from home.

Right now, you are probably focused on staying healthy by washing your hands and keeping your distance from other people, especially if they are sick. But there is more you can and should do, including being active every day. Regular exercise, along with good nutrition and getting enough sleep, can strengthen your immune system, reduce stress, and help you stay fit. 

Now that most people are spending more time at home and almost all gyms and other fitness facilities are closed, your exercise routine has likely been disrupted. The good news is, you can still get a good workout at home.

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