Music and Exercise: A Love Story


Music characterizes many of our modern day activities. We listen to music when we watch television shows and movies, when we eat dinner at a nice restaurant, and when we are relaxing by the pool with our friends. Most vibrantly however, we tend to make a conscious effort to listen to music while we exercise. We all may have different personal justifications for our desire to listen to music while working out. Nonetheless, countless research has found that there are neurological and psychological reactions that occur when exercise and music occur simultaneously. Listening to music while exercising helps to reduce the feeling of fatigue, increase levels of psychological arousal, initiate a physiological relaxation response, and improve motor coordination (Jabr). The following research reveals why music is such an effective tool in helping you to revitalize your workout and crush your fitness goals.

The simple process of sound flowing into your ears is not what enhances your fitness performance. Rather, the type of music and its tempo will increase or decrease your level of intensity and effort throughout your workout. The tempo or speed of a song represents how upbeat the song is. A pop song on the “Top 20” music chart tends to be more upbeat than classical music and Beyonce’s song “Single Ladies,” is more likely to get your feet moving and heart beating than one of Beethoven’s various symphonies. Additionally, the rhythm response of a song characterizes how much a song makes you want to dance and correlates to your natural instinct to bob your head or tap your toes to the beat of a song. Both of these factors are crucial when making your workout playlist, as you want upbeat music that will keep your body naturally moving without hesitation. Typical genres that satisfy these conditions are hip-hop, rock, and pop (Jabr). Costas Karageorghis from Brunel University in London claims music to be a, “legal performance-enhancing drug.” With an upbeat and uplifting vibe, music helps to motivate and push athletes or casual exercise enthusiasts through the most difficult of workouts.

Primarily, music reduces the feeling of exhaustion. It acts as a distraction from the conversation your body has with your mind saying, “I’m tired.” Instead of listening to you trying to discourage yourself, you listen to Beyonce tell you what a strong woman you are, or to Eminem rapping about making it through the hardest of times. When your body recognizes the increased lactate in your muscles, your rapidly beating heart, and your amplified production of sweat, it enters fight or flight mode and seeks to conserve its energy by demanding a break. However whether you’re training for a marathon, participating in an hour long kickboxing class, or enduring a hot yoga class, fighting this natural instinct is important as it will ensure you reap the full benefits of your workout. Listening to music directs the brain’s attention away from bodily exhaustion and onto the beat and lyrics of the music (Jabr).

Music is the perfect compliment to exercise because it also increases levels of psychological arousal. This concept is perfectly depicted when a professional baseball player is stepping up to bat. While the player walks from the dugout to home base, his favorite song plays loudly over the stadium speakers. Not only does this song “pump up” the player, but it also gets fans excited and in the same mindset as the athlete. The music is “psyching one up to perform exercise better,” (Kravitz). In addition to improving performance, music may also increase the amount of enjoyment that athletes receive from participating in various exercising, thus enhancing their ability to pursue through the most difficult of workouts (Harmon & Kravitz). Music acts as a motivation to continue moving. When we are left to listen to our heavy breath and rapid heartbeat, our mind senses exhaustion and seeks to preserve energy. Music helps to encourage the brain and body to continue moving.

In addition to exciting the mind, music helps to relax the body during exercise so it does not overwork itself. A study done in 2012 found that cyclists required 7 percent less oxygen when they harmonized their movements with music that paralleled or set their pace (Bacon, Karageorghis, et al). The type of music you select for your workout or that your fitness instructor selects for you is crucial in determining your performance. Slower music decreases the potential fitness capabilities of your muscles, while stimulating, upbeat music tends to supercharge the body to keep it engaged (Harmon & Kravitz).

Music also interacts with the brain by stimulating the communication that occurs between auditory and motor neurons in the brain. Jessica Grahn, a cognitive neuroscientist who studies music at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute in Ontario states that, “when you hear a loud noise, you jump before you have even processed what it is. That’s a reflex circuit, and it turns out that it can also be active for non-startling sounds, such as music.” This same circuit propels us to move in rhythm to music during our workouts. When we run, we move our feet to the same beat of the music, or when we join our friends in a kickboxing class, we kick or hit the bag at the same time the music hits a high or a low beat. Coordinating a workout to the tempo and rhythm of music enhances motor skills, thus naturally improving exercise performance (Kravitz).

Listening to music can positively enhance your workouts. Whether sweating or stretching, research has shown that upbeat and fast-paced music can work against the body’s feeling of fatigue and in harmony with the mind’s determination. However you choose to exercise, be confident in knowing that music you enjoy can only further promote your performance. The next time you go to download music, check out the “Top 20” pop or rock hits, and find some music that you cannot help but boogie to. You will be thankful you did ten minutes into your next workout.

Harmon, N.M. & Kravitz, L. (2007). The effects of music on exercise. IDEA Fitness Journal, 4(8), 72-77.

Kravitz, L. (1994). The effects of music on exercise. IDEA Today, 12(9), 56-61.

Jabr, F. (2013). Let’s get physical: The psychology of effective workout music. Scientific American.

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