If you’ve ever been to a group fitness class that you hoped would be fun and energizing and would give you a great workout and then left the class feeling disappointed, it may have been the music. Even when going for a run or a bike ride, many people will not get the best out of their workout without their favorite workout songs. It turns out there is actually a science behind wanting great music while you exercise.
In the last 10 years the body of research on workout music has swelled considerably, helping psychologists refine their ideas about why exercise and music are such an effective pairing for so many people as well as how music changes the body and mind during physical exertion. Music distracts people from pain and fatigue, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than usual—often without realizing it. In a 2012 review of the research, Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in London, one of the world’s leading experts on the psychology of exercise music, wrote that one could think of music as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Selecting the most effective workout music is not as simple as queuing up a series of fast, high-energy songs. One should also consider the memories, emotions and associations that different songs evoke. For some people, the extent to which they identify with the singer’s emotional state and viewpoint determines how motivated they feel. And, in some cases, the rhythms of the underlying melody may not be as important as the cadence of the lyrics. In recent years some researchers and companies have experimented with new ways to motivate exercisers through their ears, such as a smartphone app that guides the listener’s escape from zombies in a postapocalyptic world and a device that selects songs based on a runner’s heart rate.
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