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Explained: Why gym-goers in Seoul can no longer listen to Gangnam Style and other fast tracks

South Korean authorities have imposed a slew of fresh restrictions as Covid-19 cases rise in the country.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: July 14, 2021 7:14:23 am
A gym member practices in a fitness club amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo: Reuters)

Covid-19 cases in South Korea are on the rise, and authorities have imposed new restrictions in the country’s capital Seoul to keep the fourth wave in check. The country has been seeing more than 1,000 cases per day since the past few days.

Among the slew of restrictions, the authorities have specifically targeted gym-goers. People using the treadmill have to keep their speed under 6kmh and in group classes, which include aerobics, zumba and cycling, only music that is under 120 beats per minute (bpm) can be played.

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What is the rationale behind this move?

The idea behind these rules, as per authorities, is that fast music and strenuous exercise have the ability to generate more respiratory droplets, thereby increasing the risk of transmission. Many, however, have criticised the rules, terming them “illogical and nonsensical”. A gym owner in Seoul told Reuters, “Many people use their own earphones and wearable devices these days, and how do you control their playlists?”

On gyms, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised that they should be well-ventilated, and when possible, training should be conducted with a distance of at least six feet, with people wearing a cloth face covering or a mask.

What is beats per minute?

Beats per minute is a way to quantitatively specify how fast a musical track is. In other words, bpm conveys the tempo of a track, which is to say how fast a piece of music is played. For instance, a track with 60 bpm means there are 60 beats per minute or one beat every second. On the other hand, a track with 120 bpm is twice as fast and plays two beats per second.

This means that while gym-goers in Seoul can listen to Lady Gaga’s track “Bad Romance” that plays 119 bpm, they cannot listen to Elvis Presley’s song titled, “Mystery train” that plays 121 bpm. Neither will gym-goers be able to play the popular Korean track “Gangnam style”, which plays at 132 bpm.

In its playlist titled, “Most popular running songs at 120 BPM” the website jog.fm –that aggregates different kinds of playlists that people can use to sync with their runs– has included “Raise Your Glass” by Pink (122 bpm), “Break Your Heart” by Taio Cruz & Ludacris and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” by Whitney Houston (119 bpm). The website’s playlist of Bollywood songs include “Ghanan Ghanan” from the film Lagaan (172 bpm) and “Rang De Basanti” (105 bpm) from the movie of the same name.

Do people exercise harder when they listen to music at a higher tempo?

In 2007, the US Track and Field banned runners from using headphones and portable audio devices during its official races to ensure their safety and to prevent some runners from developing a competitive edge.

An article in the Scientific American notes that people have an innate preference for rhythms that play around at least 120 bpm, and that when people run on a treadmill, they seem to favour music that plays around 160 bpm.

Some research has shown that when people perform certain kinds of endurance exercises such as walking, listening to high-tempo music can reduce the perceived effort involved in the exercise and can increase its benefits. Listening to music with a higher tempo can also help people by distracting them from the discomfort of the exercise, thereby allowing them to push themselves.

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A study published in Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport in 2011 examined the relationship between exercise heart rate and the preferred music tempo. The study found a significant relationship between exercise intensity and music tempo and also found that slow music (characterised by 95-100 bpm) was not preferred at any exercise intensity. In fact, people’s preference for faster music increased as the intensity of exercise increased.

A more recent study published in the Psychology Bulletin conducted a meta-analysis of 139 studies that was used to quantify the effects of music in exercise and sports. It found that music was associated with “significant beneficial effects” on affective valence, physical performance, perceived exertion and oxygen consumption.

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