The Psychology Behind Effective Workout Music

For runners, walkers, bikers, weight-lifters, and others who exercise, music can be essential to an effective and satisfying workout. Though some opt for audio books or ambient music during their sweat sessions, most prefer rhythmic beats and catchy lyrics for audio motivation.

Scientific studies on the interplay of music and exercise began in 1911, when American researcher Leonard Ayres noticed that cyclists pedaled faster while a band was playing than when it was quiet. Since then, more than 100 studies have been conducted to measure music’s influence on performance during a variety of activities, from casual walking to sprinting.

According to a study performed at London’s Brunel University, listening to music is best for enhancing self-paced activity such as running or cycling. The right workout playlist can alter both body and mind throughout physical exertion and distract people from pain, boost mood, reduce perceived effort level, increase endurance, and may also heighten metabolic efficiency. Brunel’s Costas Karageorghis, a leading expert on the psychology of exercise music, referred to music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”

Mental Motivation

Psychologists have explored the reasons how music encourages people to push through tough workouts. A common explanation is distraction. After exercising for a certain amount of time, the body begins to feel physical fatigue as signs of physical exertion – such as increased heartbeat and sweat production – appear. Music distracts the brain from its physiological response to exercise and encourages the person to continue.

“Given that exercise is often tiresome, boring and arduous, anything that relieves those negative feelings would be welcome,” Karageorghis said in an interview.

Move to the Beat of the Music

Just as the effect of music on exercise is a science in itself, there is a specific methodology to choosing tunes that influence performance. The memories and emotions associated with different songs can positively or negatively affect a workout, as can the extent to which one associates with the singer’s emotional viewpoint.

In choosing motivational tunes, an important quality to consider is the tempo, or speed, of the music. A 2012 study focused on the effects of music-movement synchronization discovered that workouts are most effective when performed in harmony with the beat of a song. The effectiveness drops when the music’s tempo falls below the speed of activity; for example, a slow, sad song isn’t very conducive to a high-intensity sprint workout.

Psychologists have hypothesized that people naturally prefer rhythms of 120 beats per minute (bpm), or two beats per second. This preference jumps to 160 bpm for a treadmill workout and may go as high as 180 bpm for a 7-minute mile. However, recent research indicates that beats higher than 145 bpm do not add to workout motivation.

It’s also important to consider “rhythm response,” a term psychologists use to describe how a person instinctively responds to music, which can vary according to culture and individual preference. Many people enjoy exercising to fast-paced songs with strong, rhythmic beats, as evidenced by a study of 184 college students who claimed to prefer hip-hop (27.7%), rock (24%) and pop (20.3%) during their workouts.

Today, websites and mobile apps such as Songza and help individuals choose tunes best suited for their routine and create their ultimate exercise playlists.

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