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Rhythm is Like Crack for Your Workout

Drummer Kiran Gandhi uses beats to keep her brain and body in shape.

Fitness has a pulse, and every athlete finds it in his or her own way: the boxer with the speed bag, the yogi in flow. Swimmers use strokes per minute, while cyclists rely on handlebar-mounted computers to track cadence. Finding the rhythm can make a workout more bearable while maximizing power and efficiency.

Kiran Gandhi found her rhythm easily. That's because the 27-year-old musician and feminist has been playing drums since she was 17. She toured with M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation and now works on her solo electronic project, Madame Gandhi. It was her appreciation for rhythm that drew her to running, a sport she used to raise awareness for menstrual shame by completing the London Marathon while openly bleeding.


Rhythm turned Gandhi on to battle ropes, too. That's the workout where you hold both ends of a massive rope that that feels like it belongs on a whaling ship. You assume a squat position and use your body like a coiled spring to raise the rope and slam it down repeatedly until your muscles throb and your heart thumps against your eardrums. When you train like Gandhi, the movement becomes a kind of graceful dance. "You know that the battle rope is going well when it's fluid," she says. "There's a direct parallel [to drumming], whereby when you're in control of your instrument, it turns out a lot better."

Gandhi's rhythmic workout taps into something primitive in the human brain, says Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist at Brunel University London and the author of Applying Music in Exercise and Sport. "Repetition and consistency in movement are intrinsically satisfying for people who work out," he says. "When we lock into the rhythm with our movement rate, this is known as entrainment."

As a drummer, Ghandi's able to find her own rhythm. But you can tap the same power by putting on headphones. Through his research, Karageorghis has determined that a solid beat can reduce perceived exertion by around 10 percent. "I often advise people to examine the rhythmical patterns of the activity that they are undertaking and to then emulate these rhythms in the music that they listen to," he says. This can help induce a state of flow. Your mind stops drifting off to the other things you could be doing, and instead, you hyper-focus on the challenge at hand.

Take running, for instance. Songs that play at 160-190 beats per minute (bpm) tend to work well for hitting one stride per beat, says Karageorghis. And once you find that rhythm, the run becomes easier. (To time an entire stride cycle to the beat, try 80-95 bpm.)

As you work—be it on battle ropes or long stretches of pavement—think about the rhythm of your movements. Not just the beat, but the flow of your form—how your foot hits the ground, how your shoulders rise and fall. "It's a forced meditation," says Gandhi. And the less you focus on the pain of the workout, the more you'll enjoy the benefits afterwards. Watch now: