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Music can move you emotionally and physically

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Experts say listening to music while you work out can improve your performance.

MARCOS TOWNSEND / MONTREAL GAZETTE Enlarge Image

Experts say listening to music while you work out can improve your performance.

If you don't like working out, music is to exercise as a spoonful of sugar is to medicine: It makes the unpleasant or boring easier to take.

If you like working out, music can be like a legal drug, according to Dr. Costas Karageorghis, an expert on the effects of music on exercise, who says music puts you in the right frame of mind and improves your performance.

It's easy to enjoy and motivate yourself with music by listening to your favourite songs. But what if you're a fitness instructor with dozens of people taking your exercise class? You can't please all the people all the time, but how do you please most of the people most of the time?

Three fitness class instructors we spoke to agreed it's a challenge.

Instructors tend to choose songs that they like or that motivate them personally, and that they think will motivate others. But they're not always right.

They address this shortcoming by taking requests or inviting people who take their classes to suggest music they'd like to hear.

"I always say to them, in a couple of weeks I'm doing new choreography and choosing new music for the following eight-week session. Anything you want me to use, any personal music you enjoy, this is the time to bring it up," says Lona Montgomery of Manitou Fitness. She teaches Define Fitness classes in St. Albert, Alta., where the focus of the interval workouts is to prevent or slow down the physical losses that come with age.

People often ask her how and where she gets the music she plays.

"I just know when it's right, and sometimes it's not even about the song or the beat or whatever. I just know that people are going to connect to it emotionally," Montgomery, 53, says.

"I like to expose people to new music, so I use Greek music, Arabic music, show tunes, everything you can imagine. I don't buy any commercial stuff because I find it too generic and because I'm so used to choosing it personally."

Her son, Gord, a former club DJ, puts together the electronic music that drives the cardio portion of her workouts.

It takes about 15 hours for Montgomery to create a new playlist of approximately 20 songs and choreograph moves for a 90-minute class.

In 30 years of teaching, only two people have asked her to drop a song from her playlists.

One woman, grieving the loss of her partner, was upset at hearing what had been the couple's song, Damn, I Wish I Was Your Lover by Sophie B. Hawkins.

Another woman, whose daughter had recently married, complained that I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack, was a painful reminder of her separation from her daughter.

Jason Schwenneker, a volunteer group fitness instructor who teaches a drop-in cycle-fit or spinning class at an Edmonton YMCA, figures he must be striking a good balance "when a member comes and tells me my music is crap the same week somebody tells me my music was great."

He spends about 30 minutes a week putting together 15 songs for the hour-long class, but it's easy to change songs on the fly because cycle-fit, which constantly varies in speed, is not choreographed to specific music.

Cycle-fit classes, however, are known for music that is loud and pounding. Schwenneker says it's partly because of the higher energy generated by higher volume.

Also, a lot of the drills don't require a lot of in-depth explanation, which means the instructor can yell simple commands and still be heard.

"You couldn't get away with that in a class where members require more detailed information or in a large gym setting because the instructor would have no voice," he says.

Unless you teach Zumba. What sets it apart from other fitness classes is that there is no talking, says instructor Melissa Di Natale.

"Everything's done through watching the instructor, and the reason Zumba is designed like that is so people can hear the music instead of listening to verbal cues.

"The philosophy behind Zumba is that it's supposed to feel like a party, people are supposed to really feel the music within them, and if somebody's talking over that, it takes away from that feeling."

Eighty per cent of the music Di Natale, 27, and sister Jessica Blondin, 33, play in their classes is hot and vibrant Latin music, with the remaining 20 per cent Top 40-type songs.

Many of the songs come from CDs and DVDs that Zumba instructors are sent every month containing original music or popular Latin songs. The sisters choose Top 40 English songs to bumper the warm-up and cool-down phases of their classes. Coincidentally, almost all of these songs are sung by singers with a Latin background such as Pit Bull, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez.

You have to be careful with Pit Bull songs because they usually have some dirty lyrics, Di Natale says.

"We usually find the clean version if we can." But she remembers one summer day when her sister was teaching a free Zumba class in the main square in downtown Edmonton and accidentally downloaded the wrong version.

Because playlists are carefully matched to choreographed moves from beginning to end, Blondin still played the entire song.

"She was just mortified, but people in the class were laughing. We didn't get any complaints," Di Natale remembers.

Generally, people appreciate new music and often ask about it, prompting the siblings to post a playlist of almost 190 songs they have choreographed on their website.

"To me" says cycle-fit instructor Schwenneker, "it's all about something that's going to uplift your spirit so that you're not focused on the pain you're going through at the time."

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 17, 2013 D5

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