The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Why Is Listening to Your Favorite Music Good for Your Heart?

Listening to your favorite songs reduces your risk of heart disease.

What is your favorite song right now? Do you have an anthem that always inspires you? Intuitively, we all know that the music we love makes our hearts sing and makes us feel good. Now scientists have confirmed that listening to your favorite songs literally reduces your risk for heart disease by improving endothelial function of your blood vessels.

Scientists have found that the combination of listening to music that you love and moving your body to your favorite song creates a winning formula for wellbeing. Heart disease and obesity are leading causes of death in the United States.

Researchers in Europe have made a breakthrough discovery that listening to your favorite music triggers biological changes that improve the lining of your blood vessels (endothelial function) and reduces the risk of heart disease. The researchers found that combination of physical activity while listening to your favorite music improved endothelial function exponentially.

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In another study titled, “Move It and Lose It: Every “Brisk” Minute Counts” released on September 1, 2013 researchers found that short bursts of ‘brisk’ activity add up to weight loss. Putting together a playlist of your favorite songs that make you want to get up and dance – walk briskly, jog or do anything aerobic – is a simple and effective way to kickstart a state of health, happiness and weight loss.

Your Favorite Music Plus Exercise is a Winning Combo

Listening to favorite music improves endothelial function in patients with coronary artery disease, according to new research presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress 2013. On September 1, 2013 professor Marina Deljanin Ilic presented findings that music and physical activity combined to produce the most impressive benefits on cardiovascular health.

Professor Deljanin Ilic said: "In the setting of cardiovascular risk factors and cardiovascular disease the endothelium loses its normal function. Since endothelium derived nitric oxide is necessary to maintain an adequate vascular response, correction of endothelial dysfunction has become a goal of therapy."

She adds: "Exercise training has been shown to improve endothelial function and is the cornerstone of a multifaceted program of cardiovascular rehabilitation. However, little is known about the role of music in cardiovascular rehabilitation or the effects of listening to favorite music on endothelial function."

In human vascular diseases, endothelial dysfunction is a systemic pathological state of the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels) and is broadly defined as an imbalance between vasodilating and vasoconstricting substances produced by (or acting on) the endothelium.

Nitric oxide reduction is considered the hallmark of endothelial dysfunction. Listening to the music you love increases nitric oxide production. The current study evaluated the effects of listening to favorite music on endothelial function through changes of circulating blood markers of endothelial function. Professor Deljanin Ilic said: "The combination of music and exercise training led to the most improvement in endothelial function. Improvements in endothelial function were associated with significant improvements in exercise capacity."

Professor Deljanin Ilic concludes that: "Listening to joyful music for 30 minutes has been associated with improved endothelial function, possibly by β-endorphin mediated activation of endothelium derived nitric oxide. The vascular health benefits of music may be due to endorphins or endorphin like compounds released from the brain when we hear music we like."  

If you’d like to read more on the neurobiological power of music please check out my Psychology Today blog: “The Neuroscience of Music, Mindset, and Motivation.”

What was your favorite song of the summer of 2013?

My favorite song of this past summer was Safe and Sound by Capital Cities. Listening to this song instantly puts me in a good mood and makes me want to get up and move my body. What was your favorite song of the past summer? 

Interestingly, another research team at the ESC conference presented a paper on September 1, 2013 showing that cardiovascular risk factors are highest in the winter and lowest in the summer. Dr Marques-Vidal said, "Deaths from cardiovascular disease are higher in winter and lower in summer. We decided to conduct a large scale study to see whether cardiovascular risk factors have a seasonal pattern which could explain the seasonality in deaths."

Listening to your summer playlist in the dead of winter is a great way to stay motivated and keep what Gordon Lightfoot would call the “Summer Side of Life” alive through the wintertime.

Dr Marques-Vidal added: "Our large scale study shows that some cardiovascular risk factors take holidays over the summer. This may explain why deaths from cardiovascular disease are higher in winter than summer. People need to make an extra effort to exercise and eat healthily in the winter to protect their health."

At the beginning of every summer I have a ritual of starting a a playlist of summer songs that I also give as gift to my jogging buddy, Rob. This summer’s playlist was called “Let There Be Love” based on the song by Christina Aguilera.

The playlist started out with about ten songs but has grown to about two dozen anthems. On Labor day, we seal off the playlist and make it a time capsule that preserves the memories of that particular summer forever. In the middle of winter, listening to this music puts me in a summertime mood. The songs become encoded with specific summer associations and – like a memory box – when opened and replayed, the songs take me back and create uplifting flashbacks at a visceral level. 

I heard "Summer Nights" from Grease waiting in line at the convenience store a few days ago. Instantly, I had flashbacks to my adolescence and that very specific end of summer, back-to-school feeling we all know so well. I recommend encoding summertime music and listening to it in the wintertime as a way to stay motivated by your favorite songs year round. 

Conclusion: Customized Playlists and Good Headphones are Key

Professor Deljanin Ilic concludes, "Listening to favorite music alone and in addition to regular exercise training improves endothelial function and therefore may be an adjunct method in the rehabilitation of patients with coronary artery disease. There is not an 'ideal' music for everybody and patients should choose music which increases positive emotions and makes them happy or relaxed."

Standard earbuds can be annoying because they never seem to fit snuggly or stay in place. For under $20 you can get a pair of vertical in-the-ear headphones that will stay in place and not jiggle around when you're in motion. Being able to listen to music in high-fidelity without the hassle of constantly readjusting your headphones makes a huge difference when you’re working out to your favorite music.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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