- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Jennifer Unruh can run a mile in two songs. “I’ve got it figured out,” said Miss Unruh, who moves to the beat of Van Halen and the Fray on her IPod.

“Usually, every song lasts about four minutes. I run a mile in a little over eight. So if I can get through two songs, I know I’m a mile though my run.”

Gyms are jammed with people like Miss Unruh — the guy on the treadmill watching ESPN, the aerobic class bouncing to “Hollaback Girl,” the spinner reading Self magazine. Words, images and especially songs can provide inspiration for exercisers, as well as a distraction from tedium and discomfort.

Miss Unruh, director of wellness support at the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta, uses her songs-per-mile mind games as a way to keep engaged.

Since the dawn of the Walkman, headphones have been as important as sneakers to many exercisers. Jacqueline Wojtusik, a fashion designer who lives near Albany, N.Y., and wears headphones for her regular workouts, listens to disco, ‘80s dance, electronic — anything as long as it has a fast beat.

“If it has a higher beat per minute,” she said, “then I tend to stay with that beat.”

Science is on her side. In a 2005 study, British researchers put 18 undergraduates on stationary bicycles to pedal either to silence or to “popular electronic dance music” on headphones. Participants worked about 13 percent harder to the up-tempo music compared with silence. One of the researchers, Sam Carr, suggested that music competes with an exerciser’s awareness of how hard they are breathing or how much their legs ache.

Psychologists sometimes use the phrase “dissociation effect” to describe distractions such as music and television, and they have found it can have other benefits.

James Annesi, a health psychologist who works at the same Atlanta YMCA as Miss Unruh, found that novice exercisers given a choice of television or music were more apt to stick with an exercise program than those told to focus only on their exertions or people limited to one type of media.

“The more dissociation, the better — the more we can distance the people from their discomfort,” he said.

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