Despite what you may have heard, the connection between music and exercise didn’t start with Jane Fonda’s dance aerobics or the Sony Walkman portable cassette player. Try 300 B.C. Probably even earlier.
“You go all the way back to rowers on the Roman Galleys,” says Carl Foster, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Exercise and Health Program. “The guy is sitting there beating on his drum and he drives the basic rhythm of the rowing. Part of that is coordination—you want the rowers to row together—but part of it is that people will naturally follow a tempo. It’s just something about the way our brains work.”
Foster is describing a principle called entrainment or synchronization. “Basically you get with the beat of the music,” says Foster, who’s been leading researchers at the University of Wisconsin in their studies of music and exercise intensity for the past eight years. “You want to step at the rate the music is playing or you want to pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music.”
You probably don’t need an exercise scientist to tell you that music makes exercise more enjoyable, but what is its true effect on physical performance?
How to choose the best exercise music to fill your iPod or MP3 player
When looking for good workout songs, find those that have a distinct rhythm and appropriate tempo/beats-per-minute (bpm) for your chosen activity. The song’s bpm should correspond to the heart rate you’d hope to have during the workout.
approx. 137–139 bpm
Running: approx. 147–169 bpm
Cycling: approx. 135–170 bpm
“All things being equal, I think the stronger and more obvious the beat is, the more likely you will be to follow it,” says Foster.
“Music is like is a legal drug for athletes,” says Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., from London’s Brunel University School of Sport and Education, one of the world’s leading authorities on music and exercise. “It can reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent.”
Over the past 20 years of research, Karageorghis has identified three primary things about music that could possibly influence exercise performance: 1) the tendency to move in time with synchronous sounds (e.g., tapping your toe in time with music or the beat of a drum); 2) the tendency of music to increase arousal (e.g., the desire to move rather than to sit); and 3) the tendency for music to distract the exerciser from discomfort that might be related to exercise.
Buoyed by Karageorghis’ landmark research, Foster and John Porcari, Ph.D., have supervised more than half a dozen research studies on the effect of music on exercise intensity. As a whole, that body of research further supports the notion that synchronous music tends to drive exercise intensity (i.e., the faster the beat, the higher the intensity). Researchers also clearly identified the effect of increased arousal related to the tempo of music, thereby making intense exercise seem less stressful.