Listening to music is helpful in many aspects of our lives, but this is especially true in the case of exercising.
More than a century of research confirms that having music on can boost your athletic performance.
In a 1911 study, an American researcher noticed that cyclists pedaled faster when listening to music. Since, then, the scientific evidence for building a killer workout playlist has just continued to pile up.
Listening to music during a workout may improve your performance by:
5. Reducing how the brain processes the fatigue and pain your body is going through, making exercise more physically pleasurable… or at least a little easier.
“It reduces our perceived exertion, how hard our brain thinks we’re working,” Karageorghis, who is a professor at Brunel University London and has been active in this field of study for over 25 years, tells Inverse. “The parts of the brain responsible for communicating fatigue communicate less when we listen to music.”
4. Distracting your brain from what is going on inside to what is going on outside.
Focusing on your environment provides something for you to concentrate on other than how hard this workout is.
3. Elevating your mood, making exercising more psychologically pleasing.
“Music taps into the affective [dealing with emotions and feelings] centers of the brain and makes exercise more pleasurable,” Karageorghis says.
2. Regulating your movements, allowing your respiration rate and heartbeat rate to align.
The rhythm also makes learning new movements easier for your brain. In fact, studies suggest you should pick music that fits well with the intensity of your work out, so you can be in synchronicity.
1. Music brings people closer together.
In a group exercise class, music can make the whole experience more pleasurable, Karageorghis says.
But there’s more: music is helpful for your exercise also according to what music you’re listening to, how you’re listening to it and why. Here’s how you should select your workout playlist.
“Pick music according to tempo, rhythm and harmonic qualities,” Karageorghis tells Inverse.
What music genre is best for working out?
“There’s no such thing as the best genres or best song… that would be like a holy grail,” Karageorghis says.
But there are some factors to bear in mind. The tempo and rhythm of the music you’re listening to matter. Fast music with strong beats tends to help the most, so think garage, house, hip-hop. The musical tempo can bring your heartbeat up, facilitating exercise. A new study out Wednesday in the journal Frontiers suggests that high-tempo music may increase the physical benefits of exercise, but before you get your burn on, take note of just how high the tempo is, Karageorghis says.
The ideal tempo is between 120 and 140 beats per minute (bpm), Karageorghis says. And although past research has tried to determine just how fast is too fast, past the 145 bpm mark the effectiveness tends to plateau. (Here is a 145 bpm run soundtrack on Spotify.)
Music should not be highly syncopated — so it shouldn't vary too much or have a lot of breaks. That means salsa or avant garde jazz should not be your first pick, and neither should freeform music. Your tune of choice also should not have too many rallentandos or accelerandos — points where it goes a lot faster or slower, like classical music, Karageorghis says. However other research has shown that if the music gets progressively faster, it can help your own speed, too, so the scientific jury is out on that one.
Does familiarity matter?
Pick songs “from your pool of predilections,” Karageorghis says. That means listening to music you already tend to like. But don’t listen to your workout playlist too much outside of the gym or off the running track, to avoid desensitizing yourself to its motivational powers.
In order for music to have a positive emotional impact, making working out more pleasurable, pick songs in the major key, in a happy key, with happy progressions. And since you’re trying to dissociate and distract the brain from the pain you’re feeling, pick hot pop bops with catchy hooks.
What volume is best for exercise?
You may think you need to crank up the volume to get smashing results, but the ideal music volume for exercising is actually one that still allows you to maintain a conversation while you’re jamming.
“You want the music intensity to be between 70 and 75 decibels,” Karageorghis says. Any lower and music may make little difference to your workout, but it’s actually bad for you if it’s too high, he says.
Music with an intensity greater than 85 decibels is bad for you, especially while you exercise. Blood is flowing away from your ear and into your exercising muscles, leaving the follicles in your ear vulnerable — and damageable. This has even been a problem during group fitness classes, where the music went from motivating to stressful.
What lyrics are best?
As humans, we are drawn to lyrical content and human voice in music, and during sports this resonates with us on a deeper level.
“Lyrics can reinforce the fitness goals we are striving towards, and assist us in our physical endeavours,” Karageorghis says.
For your workout playlist pick songs with positive lyrical affirmations, such as Stronger, Simply the Best, or I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. During exercise these positive affirmations are highly absorbable.
Work hard, play harder
Want to know what the expert would listen to? Here are Karageorghis’ top picks for music for running:
To prepare for the run: Chariots of Fire, by Vangelis
To warm up: Running With the Night, by Lionel Richie
To cool down: Run on, by Moby
Music is also scientifically proven to be great for cooling down after a work out, helping you recover faster — so keep that in mind as you near the end of your playlist, too.