Why music can improve your workout…

Woman listening to music and jogging

Lots of people enjoy listening to music as they exercise, but not many realise just how effective it can be in helping them to stay physically active.

Young woman with headphones jogging in autumn nature and looking to mobile phone

While most of us understand the importance of regular exercise, the thought of physical discomfort can sometimes be off-putting. However, a growing body of research looking at the effects of music has identified three main ways music can have a positive influence on your experience of exercise.

1. Regulating your arousal levels

Music alters emotional and physiological arousal, so you can use it as a stimulant before you exercise or as a sedative to calm your nerves when you are feeling particularly anxious or het up.

Most commonly, music is used as a stimulant in the pre-workout phase –  although many professional athletes use calming music before big races as a relaxant. Dame Kelly Holmes famously used the soulful ballads of Alicia Keys to calm her pre-race nerves in preparation for gold medal wins at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Many women who exercise use loud, upbeat music to pep themselves up and get in the right frame of mind for a workout – the upbeat songs of Abba or Madonna can work particularly well in terms of priming you for action.

2. Dissociating from the pain

During exercise, a good tune will narrow your attentional focus and divert your mind from sensations of fatigue. This diversionary technique, referred to by psychologists as dissociation, lowers perceptions of exertion or how hard you think you’re working out. Effective dissociation can promote a more positive emotional state.

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Research has shown that with well-selected music the dissociation effect results in a 12% reduction in perceived exertion. So a carefully crafted playlist will allow your mind to switch off from the pain and make the entire experience of exercise more pleasurable.

3. Synching with the beat

Synchronising music with repetitive exercise is associated with increased levels of work output, meaning that music can give you more staying power. This applies to continuous and rhythmic activities such as jogging, rowing and indoor cycling. Musical tempo can regulate movement and prolong performance through making your movement patterns more energy efficient.

Women have been shown to derive greater benefit than men when synching their movements to a musical beat. A recent study used a series of six circuit-type exercises, such as step-ups and jumping jacks, each of which were performed to exhaustion in strict time with a musical beat.

Women outperformed men in terms of the number of repetitions completed and reported more positive emotions while working harder than men. Interestingly, the men appeared to derive no performance benefit from synchronous music when it was compared to a bleeping metronome.

Selecting music for your workout

Type of exercise

Ask yourself two questions: What type of exercise am I going to engage in? What am I trying to achieve in the session? Some activities lend themselves particularly well to musical accompaniment, especially if they are repetitive in nature. Examples include warm-ups, weight/circuit training, stretching, etc. In each case, make selections from a list of your preferred tracks that have a rhythm and tempo to match the type of activity that you are undertaking.

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Intensity of exercise

If your goal during warm-up is to elevate your heart rate to 120 bpm (beats per minute), then limit your choices to music with a tempo in the range 80-130 bpm – there are some ideas in the table below.

Mix the tracks so the gradual rise in tempo matches the intended gradual increase in your heart rate. To take the use of music to a more advanced level, you can programme components of your workout to coincide with segments of music. That way, work time and recovery time can be punctuated by music so that soft/slow music (recovery phase) will follow loud/fast music (work phase).

This approach is especially suited to tightly structured sessions such as circuit or high-intensity interval training.

Making your music selection

To develop your music programme, start by assembling a wide selection of familiar tracks, keeping the following in mind:

  • A strong, energising rhythm
  • Positive lyrics with movement-related associations (eg I Like To Move It by Reel 2 Real)
  • A rhythmic pattern that ideally matches the movement patterns of the activity you are undertaking (eg a disco rhythm for circuit-type exercises)
  • Uplifting melodies and harmonies
  • Associations with physical activity, sport, triumph, or overcoming adversity
  • A musical style that suits your cultural upbringing and musical tastes

Below are some ideas of motivational tracks suitable for different components of a single exercise session (based on a 42-year-old, white-UK/Irish female exerciser).

Workout component Title Artist(s) Tempo (bpm)
Mental preparation Empire State Of Mind – Part II Alicia Keys 80
Warm-up activity The Way You Make Me Feel Michael Jackson 114
Stretching Lifted The Lighthouse Family 98
Strength component Work Hard Play Hard Tiësto 128
Endurance component No Limit 2 Unlimited 141
Warm-down activity Super Duper Love Joss Stone 94
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If you enjoy exercise, there’s a good chance you already use music for your workouts, but perhaps in a slightly haphazard manner. By applying these principles, you can harness the work-enhancing effects of music with greater precision.

You might even come to realise that music is not only the food of love, but also the food of a great workout!