What Music Is Really Best For Exercise?

by JR Thorpe

When news broke last January that scientists had put together the "ultimate playlist" for exercise, incredulity reigned. Could specific music really make us push ourselves harder on the treadmill? What about non-English speakers, or people who hate Kesha, Lady Gaga, and Jessie J (all of whom were featured)?

The study of exercise performance and its relation to music is actually over a century old — the first real study was held in 1911 — but accumulated evidence is refining our understanding of how radio hits and repeated beats really do affect our bodies when they're pushed to their limits. And it's not as simple as chucking on your favorite tunes.

In the age of personal, portable music machines, you'll rarely see a jogger without headphones. The idea of tailoring music to specific exercise activity, however, is becoming a seriously interesting part of science — because, even if we think our bodies are nice, neat things unaffected by the world around them, it seems that music really can boost our physiological performance when it comes to pushing ourselves. The key questions here are: Why? And what parts of music are responsible?

The next time you're putting together a workout playlist, know that it may not pay off to just grab whatever you're loving from your music library. Learn the science instead — and you'll be kicking some serious butt.

1. Beats-Per-Minute Boost The Body's Rhythm

The basic discovery underneath musical motivation is that our bodies seem to want to respond to the music we hear. Even if we're not jogging or moving in exact time to the beat, the idea of repeated, interesting, rapid rhythms inspires our efforts.

Good workout music, according to Scientific American, utilizes a phenomenon called rhythm response, which is a measure of how much a song makes us want to move to its tempo and beat. The body, it seems, likes to move its respiration rate and heart beat roughly in line with the high-tempo music it's exposed to.

The science of finding the perfect beats-per-minute ratio is a pretty difficult one, though. Some scientists, including those who put together the "ultimate playlist," think that working with an exercising human's average strides per minute (150 to 190, depending on your pace and fitness) gives the best measure. Halving that number gives you 75 to 65 beats per minute (bpm), so you do two strides per beat.

For reference, a lot of hip hop and rap songs fit into that bpm range. Others scientists, however, advocate a much faster rate: 120 bpm, which is apparently a rhythmic range we gravitate towards pretty naturally when we click our fingers or tap our feet.

The handy site SongBPM will tell you exactly how many bpm a song has.

2. Music Should Vary With Your Type Of Exercise

Getting the right timing on your music and matching it to your exercise regime is actually pretty critical to your performance. The key thing to know before you put together a playlist is what kind of exercise you're doing that day. Sprint intervals? Strength training? Yoga? Swimming? Whatever it is, you need to match your playlist tempo to your expected cadence, or how fast your heart's going to be beating during that workout — and to what it expects of you. The more repetitive your workout, the better you'll respond to really repetitive beats, for example.

Pop music, apparently, is best for warm-ups and warm-downs, while dance music, with its higher bpms, is more suitable to high-intensity workouts like strength training than it is for running, which requires a slower set of movements. And anything with an uneven tempo needs to be avoided, because your body will get confused.

3. Music With Regular Beats Reduces Energy Waste

If you want to exercise efficiently, a well-chosen playlist may be the key to tricking your body into making sure it doesn't waste anything. A study of cyclists showed that those who cycled in time to music actually used seven percent less oxygen than those who went with their own rhythm — and it's a discovery found across the board. Your motivational music actually makes your body work both harder and more efficiently.

However, if you're absolutely sprinting, cycling at a breakneck pace or trying to reach 100 percent effort in basically any exercise capacity, music will probably not improve your efficiency all that much. Once you're at that level, the music won't affect your heart rate or oxygen use — which is probably good, as incredibly high-intensity exercise series need to be done with the minimum of distractions to avoid injuries. Not the best time to be pumping Rihanna.

4. 145 Beats Per Minute May Be The Highest You Can Go

It may be tempting to think that the sky's the limit as far as beats per minute and their impact on your exercise potential. However, there are limits. One, as we've noted, is how hard you're pushing yourself — but another, it seems, may be the bpm measure itself.

Scientific American's collection of studies on the subject indicates that there's what's called a "ceiling effect" once you hit 145 bpm. Any songs faster than that aren't going to make you work any faster or any harder; that's your body's natural inspirational threshold. So incredibly mind-blurringly fast EDM music probably ain't your friend.

5. Distraction Is A Seriously Important Factor

Don't just put on music with the right bpm ratio and expect yourself to break records. One of the real psychological factors in an effective workout playlist is its ability to keep you motivated and also distract you from your pain. The British Association Of Sports And Exercise Sciences calls the best exercise music a combination of "encouragement, affective enhancement, distraction, and stimulation." In other words, mindless pop may not be the answer if you don't find yourself captivated by its message or distracted by its beat.

This is a good argument for changing workout music regularly — to maintain its ability to distract you. Having a cycle of known songs that you regularly rotate may be a better strategy for maintaining interest and distraction than the same old playlist every time. The science of the bpm motivational push, however, means that podcasts and audiobooks just may not give you the same edge — unless they're incredibly motivating and positive, in which case they may be able to give you a kind of mood enhancement that raises your pain threshold.

6. Men & Women Have Different Motivational Music

The same team that put together the "ultimate playlist" also discovered something interesting: the most popular exercise music seems to differ pretty radically between the sexes. Their research was drawn from Spotify's millions of public exercise playlists compiled by users, and it looks like, while women appreciate female pop singers like Lady Gaga, men are more drawn to classic rock like Eye Of The Tiger.

The reasoning behind this is unclear, but we can make some good guesses. Music that's more outwardly girl-power, explicitly marketed towards a female market, will likely have more of an emotionally positive pull among women who exercise. After all, music needs to distract and elevate you as well as push you along. Personally tailored workout playlists need to cater to taste as much as tempo to work, but when they do, they're medical wonders: one study showed that, when cardiac patients were given personalized playlists to help them do exercise therapy, they were 70 percent more likely to stick with it.

So start getting scientific about your workout music, and you'll see improvements in ways you may not even have anticipated. And no, a recording of your trainer yelling at you is not going to get you there — unless it's set to a banging beat.

Images: Pexels; Giphy