The Impact of Exercise and Physical Fitness on Performance under Pressure
By Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.
Freshman year, one of my roommates was the starting center on the basketball team and went to the gym every day to work out. Intrigued, I began tagging along and started learning how to work out properly.
I found that I rather enjoyed it. I liked that there was a direct relationship between the effort I put in and the results I got. Unlike the practice room, where the effort I was putting in didn’t seem to translate into results as predictably as I would have liked.
However, I didn’t see as many conservatory students at the gym as I would have expected (though there were some notable exceptions which I’ll share in a moment).
Indeed, working out takes time, energy, and effort. When there are excerpts and endless repertoire to learn and perfect, rehearsals and coachings to prepare for, and an endless list of technical issues to fix, tweak, and master, taking a couple hours out of the day to work out, shower, and get dressed can sometimes feel like a luxury we can’t afford.
But does being physically fit provide musicians with a meaningful advantage? Especially when it comes to performing optimally under pressure?
Anxiety about anxiety
Feeling a bit of anxiety is a normal response in pressure situations. Our heart rate goes up, our breathing quickens, we feel more alert, and so on. But if a few butterflies are the extent of it, we usually handle ourselves just fine.
The problem of course, is that it often doesn’t end there. We start dwelling on the unwelcome physical changes and worry about what it all means. Are we going to crack or miss notes? Have uncontrollable bow shakes? Produce an audible tremor in our sound? Have a memory slip, embarrass ourselves, ruin our reputation, get black-listed, be unable to pay rent, get evicted, and end up living in a box under a tree in the park?
Of course, none of these thoughts are especially calming or comforting. So as our thoughts snowball towards worst-case scenarios and other negative consequences, our body responds accordingly, in a misery-inducing feedback loop.
Our heart pounds even faster. We start sweating. Our breathing feels constricted. We tighten up, and can’t release tension. All of which makes the threat of negative evaluation by our audience (or audition panel) seem even more likely, leading us to worry and freak out even more – which then kicks our fight-or-flight response up a notch or two, and on and on it goes…
This fear of the consequences of anxiety-related physical sensations has been termed “anxiety sensitivity” (think of it as anxiety about anxiety) and seems to be a predictor of the degree to which we might experience anxiety in a number of settings.
For instance, a study of US Air Force Academy cadets found that those who were high in anxiety sensitivity were three times more likely than those low in anxiety sensitivity to experience panic attacks during their highly stressful 5-week basic military training.
Another study found that of the six personality factors they looked at, anxiety sensitivity was the best predictor of the kind of anxiety one might experience before giving a public speech or performance.
So is anxiety sensitivity something we’re born with? Or is it something that can be changed?
Exercise and anxiety sensitivity
The wide-ranging benefits of exercise are well-documented, from decreasing our risk of dying from various diseases and health conditions, to improving our mood, boosting our energy, and improving our sleep.
Exercise also has pretty significant “anxiolytic,” or anti-anxiety effects, and is often recommended by psychologists as a way to manage anxiety (click here for a recent study that makes a compelling case).
A number of studies (here’s a particularly interesting one) have also found that aerobic exercise appears to reduce not just generalized anxiety that we might experience on a day to day basis, but anxiety sensitivity too.
Meaning, exercise could potentially help us be less reactive to those physiological changes under pressure, and help us keep them from spiraling out of control.
Admittedly, this hasn’t been studied much in the context of performance anxiety and elite performance (to my knowledge), so I may be stretching things a bit. However, a recent British study of conservatory-level musicians did find that the fitter musicians in the study appeared to perceive less anxiety after a stressful performance.
So, while the evidence connecting exercise and fitness to better performing under pressure may not be conclusive, it is rather suggestive, especially if every little advantage counts.
Remember those conservatory students I mentioned earlier whom I often saw working out at the gym?
These examples prove nothing of course, but if nothing else, it’s always nice to come across examples that go against the stereotype of the unathletic musician…
1) The intramural soccer team which won the intramural championship my freshman year was composed (ha! pun!) primarily of music students. One of the team’s captains and best players is now the second violinist of a prominent Grammy Award-winning string quartet.
2) Another conservatory student I often saw lifting weights at the gym is now the first violinist of yet another renowned award-winning string quartet. The cellist in the ensemble played on the varsity tennis team in college.
3) Yet another regular at the gym has since run the Chicago, St. Louis, and New York City marathons, and is now a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
How to start exercising is beyond the scope of this post, but regardless, the first step in making exercise a habit is to decide whether you think exercise and physical fitness is worth making time for in one’s life. What do you think – should exercise be an important part of a musician’s training?
(Incidentally, I’m particularly curious about those who lift weights. Historically, I think musicians have avoided resistance training, but I sense that this is changing, much like the old myth of how basketball players shouldn’t lift weights because they would get stiff and lose their shooting touch. If you do engage in resistance training, have you run into any music or performance-related problems or issues because of it?)
Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.
After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?
It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.
Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills and a few tweaks in your approach to practicing. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.
Click below to discover the 7 skills that are characteristic of top performers. Learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.
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