Searching for a little exercise motivation? If you’re feeling less than jazzed about your current routine, your playlist (or lack thereof) could be to blame.
According to scientific research, pairing your workout with music can boost your workout performance across the board — but only if it’s the right kind. “Music plays a major role in getting people more physically active,” says Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a sport psychologist at Brunel University in London and author of Applying Music in Exercise and Sport. Karageorghis has spent more than two decades studying the psychophysical and ergogenic (work-enhancing) effects of music on exercise.
There is a great deal of scholarly research in the area of music and exercise because of the tremendous impact that it can have. A recent literature review by Australian researchers, published in the Nordic Journal of Music Therapy in 2015, notes that music can help people change their behavior by helping them better stick with exercise programs.
As Karageorghis explains, “Certain music choices can make for a more intense, potent workout, and it can increase your motivation to keep going when you feel like quitting.”
Your Workout Feels Easier
You read that right. Exercising to the tune of upbeat, attention-grabbing music can distract you from physical feelings of fatigue, thus making you less aware of exactly how hard you’re working — a psychological effect known as dissociation, Karageorghis says.
“Music reduces the strength of the signals from your musculature and vital organs to the brain” he explains. “When you’re not actively focusing on your heart rate, breathing and the strain of the exercise, you will feel as though the workout is easier and more tolerable.” In fact, a study found that participants who listened to music during vigorous treadmill running reported a reduction in perceived exertion by as much as 10% compared to a control group who ran without music.
It Takes You to Your Happy Place
Not only can music drown out the negative, Karageorghis says it can also lift your spirits and heighten feelings of vigor and happiness. Studies show that when athletes listen to loud, upbeat music, there's a spike of activity in the ascending reticular activating system, the part of the brain that controls alertness and mental arousal. “We've seen music elevate mood by as much as 15%,” he says. "During high-intensity exercise music will not moderate your perceived exertion, but it will make make the exercise feel more pleasurable.”
But there’s a catch: According to Karageorghis’ research, in order to get the most out of music, the tunes have to mean something to you. “Music choices should be reflective of your own sociocultural upbringing,” he says. Having a personal connection to the songs you’re sweating to gives them a more powerful, mojo-boosting punch — so everyone should have their own signature mix.
It Pushes You to Work Harder
You know how when a song you love comes on, you almost instinctively start tapping your toes or swaying with the beat? Karageorghis says that’s called rhythm response, and you can actually harness its effects to fuel a more effective workout. “Music is a stimulant,” he says. “It can subconsciously move you, pushing you to work harder, for longer, and more rhythmically, which improves your work output.”
Optimal tempo will vary in accordance with how the music is used, he says. When you’re plugged into your tunes and are working out synchronously with music (syncing movements to the music), you can tap into the rhythm response to pace yourself. When you’re working out with music in the background, or asynchronously, Karageorghis says the key is finding a song with a BPM (beats per minute) that matches your activity and target heart rate — songs with a higher BPM help you keep a faster pace. According to Karageorghis’ research, the “sweet spot” for asynchronous music pairing for low-to-moderate intensity workouts is between 120 BPM and 140 BPM.
It Boosts Your Stamina
In 2009, Karageorghis recruited 30 participants to run on a treadmill — they were exposed to three conditions: motivational synchronous music, oudeterous (or motivationally-neutral synchronous music), and a no-music control at which they exercised at the same intensity (75% of aerobic capacity) as the two experimental conditions. When tested with music, the runners were instructed to sync their strides with the beat, which ultimately enhanced their endurance by 15% compared to the control group. And in his 2012 study focusing on people who were cycling, he found that not only is music-movement synchronisation a stamina-builder, it also makes the workout more energy-efficient.
"Moving rhythmically with music allows us to smooth out many of the inconsistencies in the kinetic chain, or our movement patterns,” he explains. “That allows you to lengthen your workout and often that lengthening is imperceptible because you're enjoying the experience so much.” Think of the beat and rhythm of a song as pace-setters — they provide temporal “cues” that help you find a mental and physical groove.
It Brings Out Your Inner Rocky
Ever hit a wall mid-workout? According to Karageorghis’ findings, the lyrics of a song can help coach you through the challenging parts of your routine — especially in songs with an inspiring or heroic message. “For example, if you work out to the theme song from Rocky, it’s not just the sound of the music but also the extramusical associations that keep you motivated,” he says. “It reminds us of that fighter running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. That’s a powerful image.” In his 2009 study on treadmill exercise, he found that music had a positive and motivating influence even when participants were nearing the point of exhaustion.
His advice: Seek songs with positive lyrics. “Messages of affirmation and perseverance tap into your memories and intrinsically motivate you to keep going,” he adds. It’s like having a tough yet zealous personal trainer — the right “power” song at the right time could give you the oomph you need to push through that last set of reps.
Tips for Choosing the Right Music
- Match the song’s tempo to your movement. This helps you capitalise on the endurance and efficiency-boosting benefits of synchronisation. Make sure the song has an easily extractable beat so syncing up with it is almost involuntary.
- Choose artists you find motivational. Seek music selections that put you in a positive, empowered mood.
- Look for affirmations in lyrics. Songs that encourage and tell you to keep going can really resonate during a workout.
- Choose music that has meaning for you. Songs that are part of your culture and history will offer more of a boost.
Find Your Next Workout Soundtrack
If you’re still searching for the perfect playlist, keep reading: Spotify recently launched Spotify Running, a new music-streaming feature that’s fully equipped to play DJ for your next run. Using advanced speed-tracking software, Spotify Running actually measures your steps per stride and syncs you up with tracks that match the beat of your movement. You can also browse hundreds of recommended playlists created by other runners — it’s already there and waiting for you.