It’s not just a body thing, it’s a brain thing.
I was four years old when I ran my first 5k in 1998. Yes, my mom’s friend had to carry me through half of the course because I was terribly exhausted and hysterically crying. Can you blame me? The 3.1 miles felt like a marathon on my stubby little legs.
I didn’t run with a music player when I was four. (If I had, you can bet I would’ve played the Spice album on repeat—cool taste for a preschooler.) My mom did, though. She had a cutting-edge portable Walkman radio, in all its bulky glory. Over the next few years, running caused fewer tantrums and I started to enjoy it to a certain extent. Music was off limits at cross country practices in middle school, but when I was 11, the iPod Nano came out and, somewhere along the way, I started bringing it with me on my solo runs.
For the most part, I still considered running boring, so music acted as a much-needed distraction. If Dashboard Confessional and Blink-182 were rattling my brain, I could at least channel my teen angst and forget, if only a little bit, that I was doing this thing called exercise. For years, I ran only with music in my ears. And then I stopped.
There’s endless research telling us that listening to music helps us run faster, makes our workouts feel easier, and helps us cool down more quickly afterward. But we’re becoming increasingly aware of all the ways exercise benefits us beyond keeping our asses tight and our physical health in check. It’s not just a body thing, it’s a brain thing.
While I’ve grown out of my teen angst, I still stress over work and relationships and, not least, the state of the world. It’s not just me—we’re in a collective rut: More people in the US are living with stress, depression, and anxiety than ever before, and it doesn’t help that we have a president who’s messing with our healthcare on so many levels. So unless your goal is to hit a PR or you absolutely need music to get you out the door in the first place, you might consider hitting pause.
Running is the perfect time for your mind to wander. That sounds harmless, but it often leads to ruminating—thinking about things that cause distress—so there’s an argument for doing just the opposite: zoning your thoughts in on a specific aspect of your workout to keep the stressful thoughts from forming. I spoke with Brandon Alderman, an exercise psychologist at Rutgers University who specializes in cognitive neuroscience and psychophysiology, about how this works.
In 2016, he and his colleagues conducted a study to find out how meditation and exercise affect our thoughts. For the study, 52 adults—including 22 with major depressive disorder—meditated for 30 minutes and then exercised for 30 minutes. They did this twice a week for eight weeks. After the program, all of the participants reported fewer depressive symptoms and those with depression also reported fewer ruminative thoughts, according to their research, published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.
The participants in Alderman’s study used focused-attention meditation, which involves focusing your thoughts on one particular thing—often your breath. If your mind is focused on your breath, that means it can’t stress about that upcoming deadline or the fight you had last night. “The process of rumination is a subconscious process, so when we engage in rumination, we often become aware of it when it’s too late,” he explains. In other words, you may spend several minutes dwelling on something negative before you realize you’re doing it. “Bringing your attention to your breath or a specific object allows you to become aware of when your mind begins to trail off of that object.”
If you’re not easily distracted, maybe music won’t keep you from holding that focus. But there’s evidence that the sounds of nature protect us from worry, too. English researchers took fMRI scans of people’s brains to see how connectivity changed in the brain’s default mode network—the network that’s active when your brain is resting—in response to different noises.
When the participants listened to natural sounds like wind blowing or birds chirping, their brains showed increased communication between the posterior cingulate cortex (a hub in the default mode network) and the precuneus. That connectivity suggests an alert, relaxed, outward focus. But when they listened to noises from man-made environments—ticking clocks, hair dryers—the posterior cingulate cortex communicated with the medial prefrontal cortex, similar to the state observed in anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Natural sounds help you relax and also help your brain sort of get away from these anxious, ruminative thought patterns,” says lead author Cassandra Gould van Praag, a researcher at Brighton and Sussex Medical School. Her findings support that: The more stressed people were at the start of the experiment, the more the natural sounds calmed them. “If you’re listening to the outside natural environment, slipping into that mode of thinking shouldn’t be so easy.”
That’s not to say that music should never be part of your workout routine. It might even be crucial in the beginning. “Music may have a place in the evolution of exercise, where a person maybe starts out listening to help motivate them, and once they’re hooked they don’t need it anymore,” says Madhav Goyal, an internist at Johns Hopkins Medicine whose research shows mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and pain.
That was the case for Alderman. When he first started running, he had to play music to stay inspired and help him hold his pace. But the more he ran, the more often he went out without headphones. “I wanted to experience the running itself,” he says. “I think in general, if we remove individual difference, relatively new, novice runners would prefer dissociation through music and as you become more experienced, you want to be more in tune with your body.”
Since I shut the music off, my mind hardly ever wanders when I run. It’s no longer a time for me to dig into deep thoughts or worry about what’s going on and what’s to come. Instead of letting my mind run wild, I pay attention to my breathing, how much I’m bouncing with each step, and the sensations I’m feeling throughout my body. I think I’m a better runner for it, and I bet my life is better for it, too.
“That period of rest from all the other stuff going on in life, the worry, the concern, whatever else, that break is really important for our well-being,” Goyal says. “Just like we take a physical rest from work, we also need mental and emotional rest, and exercise does that, I think, just like meditation does.”