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How Music Can Boost Exercise Performance

We all recognise that music can have a huge effect on our mood and emotions. We are all aware that different types of music will have totally different effects on our bodies.

Music can help us relax, cope with anxiety, depression and tolerate pain (even labour pain). It can make us feel more energetic and enthusiastic, heighten our sense of pleasure – or it can make us feel sad. It can help us sleep better, think more clearly, study and work more effectively. The magic of music is a truly amazing.

So, it probably comes as no surprise to you that music can boost your exercise performance and make your workout a more positive experience – even when it hurts!


Many of us find that when we exercise, hearing our favourite tunes or listening to rhythmic beat music will encourage us to exercise that bit harder or go that little bit longer when we feel like giving up. Elite athletes have known this for many years and regularly use music when training as a strong motivator to perform all-out, exhaustive exercise. But also, they use different music to help them relax and stay calm before a big event.


But these days, it’s not just for the athletes, exercising to music is a very effective way for enhancing the exercise experience for all of us – whether it be wearing a personal iPod/MP3 player headset in the gym or when out for a walk or run, or listening to loudspeaker music in group exercise classes.


Researchers at London’s Brunel University studied the effects of exercising on a treadmill while listening to a selection of music, including songs by Queen, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Madonna. They were asked to keep in strict time with the beat. They showed that carefully selected music enhanced endurance performance by around 15 per cent and helped the participants derive greater pleasure from exercising, even when they were working out at a very high intensity. The researchers concluded that four factors contribute to the motivational qualities of a piece of music whilst exercising:

  1. a) Rhythm – the tempo or speed of the music
  2. b) Harmony and melody of the music
  3. c) Cultural impact
  4. d) Association with other feelings or events – e.g. Chariots of Fire is often associated with Olympic glory.


Music tends to have a steady tempo to it, often measured in “beats per minute”. A simple observation is that most music is in the range of 50-200 beats per minute, which interestingly is roughly the same range of our heartbeats. Also, in general the tempo of a piece of music roughly equates with the heartbeat associated with the corresponding physical state or emotion which the music suggests.

Slow music (e.g. playing at less than 60 beats/min) is often very relaxing and introspective – but can also be very depressing! When the beat speeds up to 60-80 beats per minute this tends to relate to is a calm and relaxed mood, 80-100 is moderately alert and interested. 100 upwards is increasingly lively, excited or agitated and, 80-120 (quite a common tempo) relates to vigour and excitement whilst 120-160 is commonly associated with generates very lively and energetic moods. The faster the music beat, the harder we tend to exercise – to keep up with the rhythm. So in a typical aerobics workout, the heartbeat and music beat are often both around 130-160 beats per minute, whereas in a heavy, more exhaustive workout, both the tempo and heart rate are usually higher.


How does it work?


Basically there are three ways:

  • Music can lower your perception of the physical effort you are making. It can trick your mind into feeling less tired during a workout and also encourage positive thoughts. So you feel less pain.
  • Matching the music beat to the tempo of the exercise helps you move more rhythmically and even reduce the oxygen required by up to 6% – making you much more efficient in your movement – so you don’t feel as tired.
  • The rhythmical qualities of music can improve your technique and make you a more efficient exerciser – and make you feel more energetic.


Last year, there was even a London’s Music Half-Marathon – the Sony Ericsson Run to the Beat. The music that was played during the run to the beat was scientifically selected to match the physiological and psychological demands of a half marathon event. Competitors generally reported substantial benefits from running to music – both mentally and physically.


How do you pick the music suitable for you when exercising?


Brunel University’s Dr Kostas Karageorghis suggests the following:


  • To find out the beats per minute of your favourite tracks put the title of the song and ‘beats per minute’ into an internet search engine and it will tell you. This will help you build your playlists
  • Match the music to the activity you are undertaking and the psychological effect you want to experience. For example, loud, fast, rhythmical, percussive, bass-driven music is great for psyching yourself up before and during more strenuous interval training.
  • Consider the tempo – is the speed of the music and its rhythm (pattern of beats over time) ideal for your running cadence?
  • How intense is the activity: generally speaking you will need faster music if you are running at a faster pace (music of 130-150 bpm is ideal for high-intensities).
  • Does the tempo of the music match your expected heart rate during your workout?
  • Has the music got a rhythm (beat) that makes you want to exercise?
  • Do the lyrics contain positive affirmations of running such as “keep on running”, “born to run” or “run to the beat”? Other positive statements such as “moving on up” or “I believe” also lead to positive motivational consequences.
  • Does the music create imagery in your mind that is motivational; maybe through associations the piece has within popular culture (e.g. the “Rocky” film series soundtrack) or through personal memories?
  • Does the music remind you of your adolescence, early adulthood or another part of your life that stimulates positive feelings for you?
  • Does the music possess a pleasing melody and harmony (combination of notes played at the same time that shapes the emotional “colour” of the music) which improves your mood? Generally speaking, major (happy) harmony is more appropriate for exercise than minor (sad) harmony.
  • Does the music emanate from the genre (e.g., ‘pop’, ‘rock’, ‘urban’, or ‘dance’ etc.) which you grew up with and can identify with?
  • Does the music make you feel excited or ‘psyched-up’?
  • Does the music evoke a positive state of mind?
  • Does the music make you feel confident and does it promote motivational thoughts?
  • Are you familiar with the music without finding it tiresome owing to overexposure to it?

Playing carefully selected your music that suits you can be of huge benefit to help you achieve your health and fitness goals.

Even if all it does is make your workout that bit more enjoyable, it’s a simple, pain-free trick that can help you stick with your programme long-term … and that means better health!

So, now create a great playlist that works for you!

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