Musical Agency during Physical Exercise Decreases Pain

Front Psychol. 2018 Jan 17:8:2312. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.02312. eCollection 2017.


Objectives: When physical exercise is systematically coupled to music production, exercisers experience improvements in mood, reductions in perceived effort, and enhanced muscular efficiency. The physiology underlying these positive effects remains unknown. Here we approached the investigation of how such musical agency may stimulate the release of endogenous opioids indirectly with a pain threshold paradigm. Design: In a cross-over design we tested the opioid-hypothesis with an indirect measure, comparing the pain tolerance of 22 participants following exercise with or without musical agency. Method: Physical exercise was coupled to music by integrating weight-training machines with sensors that control music-synthesis in real time. Pain tolerance was measured as withdrawal time in a cold pressor test. Results: On average, participants tolerated cold pain for ~5 s longer following exercise sessions with musical agency. Musical agency explained 25% of the variance in cold pressor test withdrawal times after factoring out individual differences in general pain sensitivity. Conclusions: This result demonstrates a substantial pain reducing effect of musical agency in combination with physical exercise, probably due to stimulation of endogenous opioid mechanisms. This has implications for exercise endurance, both in sports and a multitude of rehabilitative therapies in which physical exercise is effective but painful.

Keywords: cold pressor test; endorphin; endurance; musical agency; pain; sport.