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May 2024
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Get Rhythm!

The Impact of Music on Exercise Performance

Listening to music while exercising can increase performance, study shows.

Listening to music while exercising can increase performance, study shows.

There are necessities to every workout.  Willpower?  Check.  Quality sneakers?  Absolutely.  Shirt and shorts?  Most definitely.

There’s one more thing, though, that I’m convinced is a necessity:  Music.

Now, this may sound absurd, the notion that you need music to exercise.  But when I say “need,” I mean it in the sense that if you want to get the most out of your workout, you need music as much as you need sneakers.

The science behind music’s motivating effect is well-established.  I wrote about some of those studies in the past, but a fairly recent one found that people who listened to upbeat music and cycled to its beat used almost 10 percent less oxygen than the controls that cycled without music. In an even more recent study, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, people who listened to upbeat music had a 15 percent higher endurance level than the controls that were music-less.

Normally, it’d be right about now that I’d tell you to choose any music that motivates you, from Beck to Bach, Elton John to John Denver, Rise Against to Against Me.

But according to a 20 year study by Costas Karageorghis, selecting music for exercise should be based on four criteria:  rhythm response, musicality, cultural impact and association.

Choosing a song based on rhythm response is another way of saying a song with a rhythm you respond best to, or the song that best matches the cadence with which you run, walk or pedal a bicycle.

Musicality is any song you consider to be musical, something with a mellifluous chorus line or a righteous bass line.

The final two criteria—cultural impact and association—is what we bring to music based on past experiences.  Perhaps there’s a song that reminds you of a pleasant past experience, or a band you saw that you really enjoyed.  Find a genre of music that best matches that band, or a genre of music that stimulates an emotional, motivated response.

Now, using these criteria doesn’t necessarily preclude your selecting slow songs, if slow songs are the ones that motivate you most.  But there’s something to be said for choosing an upbeat brand of music even if it’s not necessarily the kind of music that gets you motivated.  And by “upbeat,” I mean music that’s between 90 and 150 beats per minute (i.e., if you were to match a song’s beat with the beating of your heart when you’re exercising).

I say this because when some British researchers asked cyclists to listen to the same song three separate times while they exercised, the participants increased or decreased their distance in conjunction with how fast or slow the song was being played.  For example, when the researchers increased the tempo by 10 percent—which was so small an increase that none of the participants noticed the uptick in tempo—they increased their distance traveled by two percent and pedal cadence by nearly four percent.  The change in performance was even more pronounced when the tempo was slowed (10 percent below the normal speed), cutting back on their traveling distance by about four percent, their cadence dropping by nearly 10 percent.

The study was conducted by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University and published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.

These may not sound like huge swings in performance, but Olympic athletes devote hours of training time to trimming back their timed races by tenths and hundredths of a second.  Hundredths of a second can be the difference between silver and gold.

The same standard applies to your exercise, as every tenth of a mile and hundredth of a second is an improvement.   And there are few more effective ways of expediting improvement than with music.  Now that’s music to my ears.


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