Most people enjoy listening to music while they exercise, and a growing body of evidence suggests that good workout songs may provide more than entertainment while you sweat: they could actually improve your performance. Read on to learn more about the science behind workout music, including how to build a playlist to power you through your next session.
Music as motivation
Music's ability to boost and alter our mood is well-known – this is why everything from films and advertisements to parties and waiting rooms come with their own soundtrack. Hence, it makes sense that listening to music you enjoy will make you feel more positive about – and thus more willing to actually stick to – that fitness routine.
For many people, music provides the distraction necessary to make a long, gruelling session more bearable. If you're feeling entertained and emotionally stimulated by some groovy beats, you'll be less conscious of the minutes ticking by and the effort you're putting in. And the evidence is not purely anecdotal – research by Professor Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University found that listening to upbeat music can increase athletes' endurance by as much as 15 percent, as well as diminishing their perception of pain and effort.
Keeping the beat
While individual preferences exist, the majority of people seem to benefit most from upbeat tunes while they're exercising. In a study conducted at John Moores University, researchers found that volunteers riding a stationary bike pedalled faster and for longer when the tempo of the music they were listening to was subtly increased by 10 percent. The volunteers also reported enjoying the music more.
The opposite effect was observed when the tempo was decreased by 10 percent – the volunteers' speed and distance decreased, and they were less keen on the tunes being played.
There are two schools of thought on why this might be the case. The first argues that fast music distracts the brain and therefore fools you into thinking you're working less hard than you are, whereas the second (supported by the John Moores University) study suggests that rather than masking your exertion, faster music simply boosts your motivation to embrace and push through the extra effort.
Either way, an upbeat tempo seems to have a positive effect, particularly on self-paced exercises such as running, walking and cycling, in which the ability to maintain a steady pace can help improve energy efficiency.
Choosing your workout playlist
So how should you choose which songs to include on your ultimate workout playlist? According to Professor Karageorghis, songs with a tempo of between 120 and 140 beats per minute deliver the best results for most people engaged in moderate cardio exercise. However, you can tailor this according to your own heart rate and the activity you're engaged in.
For instance, choose songs that play at about 80 to 90 beats per minute for warm-ups and cool-downs, and save the faster tracks for the middle of your workout. Unfortunately, anything over 140 beats per minute doesn't seem to have any more of an effect – so for sprinting or interval work, you'll have to rely on your own mental strength.
Of course, enjoyment is a key concept here – you'll benefit the most from music you actually like. Studies have found that many people are spurred on by motivational music (for example, the themes from Rocky or Chariots of Fire), but choose whatever gets you moving. For instance, some people even prefer to get fit without music: some find audiobooks or podcasts to be more engaging, while others say that listening to the ambient sounds around them enhances their workout through greater focus and awareness.
If you're looking for some great exercise tunes, check out our Vitality Run Series playlist, which includes tracks chosen by our Vitality Ambassador Jessica Ennis-Hill. As an Olympic champion, Jess knows a thing or two about getting the most from your workout, so it's worth checking out her music picks for inspiration.