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.

music and language, intertwined

The brain activity for music and language is enormously complicated, and researchers are still trying to determine how the brain handles each process. Below is a sampling of what we do know: Areas in the frontal lobe (orange) help us learn the rules that govern language and music, such as those for syntax and harmony. Regions in the temporal lobe (green) help us perceive and understand sounds, such as the meaning of words and melodies.

The auditory cortex (blue) appears to have distinct music and language roles: the left auditory cortex is important for decoding and discriminating different aspects of speech, whereas the right auditory cortex is more involved in perceiving the pitch and frequency of sound. The insula (red) processes rhythm, perhaps in subtly different ways, for both music and speech. And the corpus callosum (gray) is larger in the brains of musicians, suggesting that musicians require greater communication between the two hemispheres.