The link between music and exercise has long been a subject of fascination for psychologists and scientists. Documented studies date back as far as 1911, when American educator Leonard Ayres discovered that cyclists pedaled faster while listening to music than while pedaling in silence.
In the hundreds of surveys that have been done, music has been identified as a major motivator for those who exercise. Music, it has been shown, can affect brain wave patterns — it can actually distract the brain from physiological signals of fatigue.
“A suitably motivational playlist can help to ‘color’ the symptoms of exercise-related fatigue, like breathlessness and a beating heart, in such a way that they are interpreted in a more positive manner,” said Dr. Costas Karageorghis, an acclaimed British authority on the interplay of music and sports performance. “This means that at the point when your body is shouting ‘stop,’ the music has the power to lift your mood and beckon you on.”
Karageorghis, who teamed up with Spotify earlier this year to create The Ultimate Workout Playlist, even goes so far as to say that music could be considered “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Determining the particular types of music and songs that inspire varies from person to person and can be influenced by factors like culture. But there are some generally universal qualities of a performance-enhancing workout playlist to keep in mind.
1. Find the right tempo
Considered by many to be the most important facet of workout music, musical tempo — or the speed of the song — can greatly impact exercise efficiency. For the most part, studies show that people tend to get the most stimulation out of fast songs with powerful beats (think hip-hop). Research suggests that most of us innately prefer songs between 120 and 145 beats per minute (bpm) during workouts, or two beats per second.
Higher intensity exercisers and athletes seem to favor even faster songs between 160 and 180 bpm or more. However, studies imply that tempos higher than 145 bpm don’t kick in added motivation. To find songs that fall within the ideal beats per minute range, you can plug them into songbpm.com or do a simple Google search.
2. Synchronize tempo to your natural speed
In a 2010 study by the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Germany, scientists determined that listening to music in the ideal tempo range can induce us to tune into its beat. And while it isn’t necessary to totally move in time with your workout music, studies show that having that synchrony can help the body optimize energy output. Moving in rhythm to a song may cue the body to coordinate better and with fewer adjustments.
Another study — this one by Karageorghis and colleagues at Sheffield Hallam University — points out that “endurance is improved when exercise movements are synchronized with a musical beat.” In comparing the oxygen consumption of participants in the study using synchrony to those who weren’t, the scientists noted that synchronous participants required seven percent less oxygen to do the same work as those who didn’t cycle in beat to the background music.
If you’re interested in giving synchrony a try, apps like jog.fm and Songza can help you match your workout pace to music of the same tempo.
3. Choose songs that give you a rhythm response
You know when you are listening to a song and you just can’t help but tap your fingers on the table, bob your head or even get up and start dancing? Well, that little phenomena has a name — it’s called rhythm response.
This instinctual compulsion to tap into a song is a pretty good indicator that the song should be on your playlist. Regardless of whether or not a song lies in the ideal bpm range, it won’t be as effective of a choice for your gym set list if your brain (and body) don’t respond to it with immediacy and excitement.
4. Choose songs that lyrically affect you
In addition to rhythm response, lyrical intent can drive the way you react to a certain song. Just because a song has a desirable tempo and makes you bob your head doesn’t necessarily make it a guaranteed workout playlist success.
Another consideration is how the lyrics affect you. The right music can enhance your endurance by helping you fight through fatigue. How? Emotion. Listening to a song with a powerful message or a message of overcoming adversity can motivate you to muster up more strength. Likewise, listening to a song that evokes a character or person who has overcome adversity might inspire courage and tenacity.
5. Don’t forget nostalgic songs
And, hey, there’s also something to be said for those oldies but goodies you can’t seem to delete from your playlist no matter how hard you try. Are you a die-hard Madonna fan? Do the Backstreet Boys make you sweat? Good news! Such nostalgic choices can actually make your workouts more intense.
Karageorghis encourages working out to songs that hearken back to your adolescence or early adult years, as it recalls a time in your life when you were likely at the peak of fitness of energy. So forget saying “Bye Bye Bye” to your favorite boy band, and keep up the cardio, my friend.