Music and Your Workout: Playlists, Volume, and More
How your workout playlist can give you an edge when you exercise.
By Robyn Abree
It’s one of the most famous movie moments — rookie boxer Rocky Balboa charges to the top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art staircase, punching and jabbing to Bill Conti’s anthem, “Gonna Fly Now.” It’s 1976, and the era of portable electronic devices is years away. But what if Rocky had been listening to that song on an MP3 player during his workout? Could he have run up those steps even faster?
Maybe. Music can motivate you to work longer and harder, says David-Lee Priest, PhD, a health psychologist and researcher at London’s Brunel University.
But before you reach for your headphones, know this: There’s a downside to pumping up the volume.
Working Out to Music
Music may boost endurance — but not of your muscles, of your brain.
“Fast music, especially, provides us more information to process, which may distract someone from the physical sensations of fatigue and block signals to stop exercising,” Priest says.
But not all fast songs do that. If the music is too fast, it isn’t likely to enhance performance or endurance, says Costas Karageorghis, PhD, deputy head of sports psychology at Brunel University. He has studied the effects of music on exercise for more than 20 years.
“Findings show there is a sweet spot, in terms of tempo, between 120 and 140 beats per minute,” Karageorghis tells WebMD. “Beyond that, it doesn’t improve enjoyment or any other psychological variable while exercising.”
That’s also true if you’re working out at a very intense level, or about 70%-80% of your aerobic capacity, he says. In fact, for most elite athletes, music only has a small effect on performance.
That’s because most athletes already have excellent focus when it comes to regulating their movements and reaching a particular goal, Karageorghis says. Music may be too distracting and even hinder performance for some professional athletes, he says.
But for the average person who exercises at a moderate level a few days a week, music can and does enhance working out. Unlike athletes who train for a living, most people actively seek distractions while working out. Listening to music may ease the boredom they associate with exercising, Karageorghis says.
For them, music is like the “cheese sauce on top of the broccoli,” Priest agrees. That is, music helps them tolerate exercise, and may motivate them to work out more often.
Choosing Your Exercise Playlist
Sure, you have your personal preferences. But whatever musical style you favor, you might want to check the beats per minute (bpm). You can look for apps that can help you determine the bpm.
Karageorghis suggests choosing songs that mirror your heart rate, depending on the level of exercise.
For instance, he recommends slower songs that have tempos within the 80-90 bpm range, like “Stereo Heart” by Gym Class Heroes or “Twilight” by Cover Drive, when you’re warming up or cooling down.
As you pick up the pace to a moderately intense level, Karageorghis says songs within the 120-140 bpm range are ideal — such as “Starships” by Nicki Minaj (125 bpm), “Domino” by Jessie J (127 bpm), and “Turn Me On,” by David Guetta featuring Nicki Minaj (128 bpm). Songs over 140 bpm are unlikely to improve workouts, he says.
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