Chain-gang chants, military cadences, sea shanties: humans have long paired music making with intense physical exercise. Now research confirms the power of the combination: working out seems easier while producing music, according to a small study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

In the study, half of the participants made music while working out by using software that turned their movements into tunes. These exercisers exerted equal force while pumping iron as did people who merely listened to music during exercise. Yet the music makers used less oxygen during their routine—a measure of exertion—and they also felt they were working less hard than those who just listened.

Music production may make exercise easier by activating so-called emotional motor control, posits Thomas Fritz, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig and the study's lead researcher. Emotional motor control is responsible for spontaneous actions such as a genuine smile; deliberate motor control, in contrast, implements purposeful action (such as a fake smile). Activating this more efficient system, Fritz says, may be as easy as singing along or pumping iron in rhythm with the tunes in your exercise playlist.