Does Listening to Music Improve Your Workout?

Omaha, Nebraska law clerk Jessica Myers, 27, lost her earbuds and then her iPod over a period of three days through a hole that grew increasing bigger in her gym bag. Working 12-hour days and caring for her twin toddlers left her little time to shop or even surf for replacements, so she decided to try working out the old fashioned way: sans tunes. But after years of channeling a playlist of Moby, Adele, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, Myers found her workouts dragging without them.

“I have a recumbent bike, treadmill and Cybex machine in my basement,” she explained, “along with free weights. I do that a couple of nights a week.” On weekends she and her husband take turns going to their neighborhood health club so one of them at a time can stay with their daughters. “But without my music, I pretty much lost my motivation altogether, no matter where I was working out,” Myers admitted.

Similarly, Boston art dealer Jim Hanson, 33, decided to take his workout outdoors, but without his iPod. Deciding he was missing the sweet sounds of nature, Hanson jettisoned earbuds in favor of birdsongs and the like, filling his senses with the sights, smells and sounds along the Charles River. Though he was as focused as he could possibly be on experiencing everything around him, Hanson found himself cutting his runs short for lack of what he called “a bring it kind of beat.” Without music, the runs became monotonous. “I felt myself having to push harder for some reason,” he said.

According to experts, music during a workout can be a positive distraction from pain, repetition and sometimes the boredom that sets in from 30, 45 or more minutes of cardio. Anecdotal evidence suggests music can make people less aware of their exertion and the faster the beat the better in terms of incentive to keep going. Where endurance sports are concerned, the right beat and melody can help propel athletes toward winning results—even in the face of exhaustion. A study at England’s Brunel University concluded that listening to music while exercising can increase endurance up to 15 percent.*

Conversely, music that is too fast (more than 140 beats per minute, or bpm), is thought to push too hard, resulting in fatigue and burnout—and possible injuries whether the athlete is running, cycling or lifting while trying to keep pace with the beat.

Even with that finding, other studies have shown treadmill runners tend to favor music that pulses at 160 bpm. Websites and apps such as Songza and assist in matching tempo to running pace, with recommended songs as high as 180 bpm for that aspirational 7-minute mile. In a 2012 study by C. J. Bacon of Sheffield Hallam University, Karageorghis and their colleagues, participants who cycled in time to music required 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as cyclists who did not synchronize their movements with background music. Music, it seems, can function as a metronome, helping someone maintain a steady pace, reducing false steps and decreasing energy expenditure.**

Brain and brawn
Research shows the rhythm of whatever you’re listening to stimulates the brain’s motor area. Have you ever been in your car, or sitting at your desk, or even leisurely picking through the department store sale rack when you hear one of your favorite songs? The urge to jump up and move may be overwhelming. If you’re working out, the incentive to ramp it up in light of an all-time “fave” can be just what the doctor ordered to carry you through to the end of the session. Program 10 or 15 of these inspirational ______ into your device, and complete your workout with fun instead of fatigue.

Change your mood; charge your glutes!
Many therapists recommend choosing upbeat music as a tool to help elevate depressive or anxious moods. In one study of patients who were poised for surgery—often a time of great anxiety, participants had less anxiety and lower cortisol (the stress hormone) levels when provided with music. The experiment was juxtaposed against one with patients who’d been given anti-anxiety drugs prior to surgery, with the music group scoring higher in relaxation.

The same principle applies to workouts, where music is the great equalizer when it comes to escaping one’s surroundings. Sure, many people enjoy the gym or outdoor athletics and wouldn’t want to be anyplace else mentally, but adding your favorite music mix can be like a little cayenne, chili powder or a few red pepper flakes to spice things up.

Just as hotels, shops, restaurants, bars, spas, weddings and other hospitality venues, events and forms of entertainment (have you ever watched a movie without a soundtrack?!) utilize music to convey a message—buy; relax; savor; feel fear, sadness or joy, working out with it is no different. Music –especially something that appeals to us—enhances the experience and can leave us wanting more, thereby increasing workout time.

“Once I got a new MP3 player, I got my groove back,” said Myers. “Somehow I got a boost. I had more energy.”

Hanson also introduced an MP3 player to his runs along the Charles, deciding he’d call upon his other senses—his nose to inhale the scents of the seasons and his eyes to take it all in—without sacrificing his mood. “In fact, on potentially stormy days I’d conjure up some classical Wagner or Berlioz,” he quipped. “When the sun was shining, I’d run with Gwen (Stefani), Christina (Aguilera) or other sunny blonde!”

Research also shows that while beat and melody are integral to many, others rely upon inspirational lyrics such as those from the “Rocky” soundtrack. Hanson concurs.

“When you’re tackling a massive hill or running in a snowstorm, the extra push you get from “Gonna’ Fly Now” can make all the difference,” he said. “Though it’s majestic, I’m not sure I’d get the same shot in the arm from Wagner’s “Symphony in C Major.”




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