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Does Music Really Affect My Workout Performance?

The science behind how music improves your fitness

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Popping earbuds in before a workout is habitual for many of us and exercising without a backing track unthinkable. A recent survey by Runners World found that 75 percent of respondents consider that jogging to music is beneficial. Just how music can fuel exercise is a recent field of scientific study which experts have been exploring for two decades. So we’ve rounded up the science and here is how music can improve your workout…

Music & Exercise: The Physical Benefits 

Does music actually affect us physically? We’ve all been at a concert or music festival and experienced the thrill of an upbeat song. Also, you’ve probably had a killer track help push through an intensive workout. So what does science say about music’s impact on your body? 

Well, studies show that faster-paced music tends to help improve athletic performance when a person engages in low-to-moderate level exercise. By improving we mean: either the distance traveled, pace or repetitions completed increased. For example, a 2006 study that looked at the effect of music on the treadmill speed found that while listening to fast-paced music, participants increased their pace and distance traveled without becoming more tired. Also, other studies drew similar conclusions. One suggesting that listening to music with higher BPMs can enhance physical performance during low-to-moderate level exercise.

Researchers have also recently begun to pursue more detailed explanations as to why music can improve exercise performance. A 2010 study led by sports psychologist C.I. Karageorghis states that music can improve athletic performance in two ways. It can either delay fatigue, meaning that it keeps your mind off the work you are doing. Or music has the ability to increase your workout capacity. Meaning that it allows your body to push itself hard than you would without music. 

Even your motor skills can be improved with a few good tunes. Swiss researchers discovered that an exercise program combined with music improves gait, balance, and coordination among seniors and those rehabilitating from injuries. One of the strong elements of music in these improvements is the rhythmic beat and the connection between the brain and motor skills. 

Increasing Your Workout Intensity With The Music’s BPM

Have you ever watched a toddler’s spontaneous response to music? They hear a song and start moving right along to the beat! As adults, we’re no different. Fast, upbeat music prompts an innate urge within us to move, so it should come as no surprise that music has the power to enhance our workout.

Several studies have shown how BPM affects the intensity of a workout. These studies determined that the ideal tempo necessary for maximum performance depends on the type of exercise. In 2011 a study showed that in order to achieve the best performance for cycling, the preferred tempo is between 125 and 140 BPM. Meanwhile, a study published in 2014 showed that the best music tempo for enhanced performance on the treadmill is between 123 and 131 bpm.

Some scientists think that tempos are related to your ability to keep time with the beat of the music. So synchronizing strides or pedaling to a faster beat of the music would get you moving faster too. Also, because pace differs on the treadmill versus a stationary bike, you need different music. So keeping to 125-140 bpm for cycling and then 123-131 bpm for running is ideal.

There’s bad news for rock enthusiasts, though. Frequent changes in tempo can disrupt your rhythm, so it’s probably best to avoid the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack come gym day.

This isn’t an exact science, but if you’re not into switching genres mid-workout, it seems like hip-hop is the way forward. Most hip-hop songs have a bpm of between 65 and 75, which is what many scientists consider to be the optimum range. If you really want to optimize your playlist, you can check out the site Song BPM, which tells you a track’s bpm, and curate your playlist accordingly.

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The Type of Music You Should Listen To When You Exercise

Researchers found that when the participants listened to upbeat, motivational music, their heart rates, and peak power output were both higher than when they listened to a podcast or no audio whatsoever. What’s more, participants reported enjoying the workout more afterward when they listened to music, compared to when they listened to a podcast or no audio.

The reason? It’s likely a combination of physiological and psychological factors. Physiologically, there’s a concept called “entrainment”. This refers to the tendency of the brain to synchronize with music. Just like the BPMs we just talked about. However, this not only explains your ability to keep pace with the music. It also explains increased heart rate, meaning that your heart is also keeping up with the BPMs. 

Additionally, when you’re at your max heart rate power output, your body shifts into a state of flow. This is an optimal zone where you’re fully focused and immersed at the task at hand. You can think of it as being in “the zone” during your workout. Music factors like lyrics, tempo, and rhythm come together to evoke emotional responses. For example, you might associate ‘Eye of the Tiger’ with Rocky.

Also, music helps induce the same kind of alpha wave brain activity we usually experience in our resting state. Basically, the best workout music should help immerse you completely in the routine and give you the feeling of working on autopilot rather than overexerting yourself.

Music & Exercise: The Mental Benefits

So, music obviously has a pretty clear impact on our body, but what about our mind? That’s a bit of a different story. 

According to researchers “altering the mind’s arousal state with music will result in increased exercise performance. As if the music is ‘psyching’ one up to perform exercise better.”

Additional research has also known that there are direct connections between auditory neurons to motor neurons. In other words, regardless of what you hear, your brain and body will react. Which makes sense as to why a good film score can get your adrenaline pumping or your eyes watering. Turns out it’s looking the same for your workout too. 

Not only that, but music could also lessen the way your body thinks about being fatigued. “Some of the byproduct molecules of high-level exercises, such as acidosis and elevated hormones (which contribute to fatigue), may somehow be dampened by music, thus enhancing performance,” wrote researchers Szmedra and Bacharach, who examined the effects of classical music on cycling to exhaustion.

Although, more research still needs to be done the evidence is promising that music is definitely affecting the way your mind thinks about a workout. So choose your workout playlist wisely!

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Lesley George

Lesley is a content writer and community manager at Shape.

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