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According to Costas Karageorghis, co-author of Inside Sport Psychology (Human Kinetics, 2011) and a reader in sport psychology at Brunel University in London, England, music can enhance workouts in several unique ways. Having completed over 20 years of research on the benefits of music-fuelled exercise, Karageorghis provides the scientific scoop on crafting the perfect playlist.
How music affects your performance
It's true! Breaking a sweat does feel easier when you have a soundtrack wafting through your headphones.
"Music reduces the perception of how hard we feel that we're working," explains Karageorghis. However, this effect only comes into play when you're exercising at a low or moderate intensity. If you're working out at a high intensity – feeling breathless and experiencing aches from the normal buildup of lactic acid in your muscles – music won't mask the feelings of extreme physical exertion, but it can still make you feel happy.
"Despite the fact that music doesn't influence what you feel at high intensities, it can influence how you feel," says Karageorghis. "In other words, it colours the interpretation of fatigue and enhances mood. It can make exercise more pleasurable and elevate the positive aspects of mood, such as vigour, happiness and excitement, while decreasing negative aspects, such as tension, depression, anger and fatigue."
And if you swear that exercising to your favourite tunes gives you the urge to add an extra bounce to your step, you're onto something.
"If you carefully monitor the rates of your movements, and you get music that is very slightly above that, by consciously synchronizing your movements to the rhythmical qualities of the music in a fastidious way, you will get a 15 per cent increase in your endurance," says Karageorghis.
This synchronous effect of music is actually more beneficial for the average active person than it is for elite athletes, who are more attuned to their own well-developed rhythms.
Factors to consider when creating a playlist
Stitching songs together randomly won't result in a playlist that motivates or entertains. Crafting the perfect playlist takes careful consideration. First of all, Karageorghis recommends that you evaluate your audience. If you're a trainer crafting a playlist for your clients, pay attention to their background and musical preferences.
"If you're working with basketball players in the Bronx, and you play Brit Pop, it probably wouldn't go down too well. You need that cultural match," he explains.
The second factor for playlist supremacy is considering the activity that you or your client will be doing. Ideally, you want the rhythmic elements of the music to fit the workout.
"The music that you select for different activities varies greatly in accordance with the mental and physical state that is associated with optimal performance in those activities," says Karageorghis.
Here's where beats per minute (BPM) can make or break your playlist. For a relatively sedate, meditative activity, such as yoga, slow tempo music in the range of 60 to 90 BPM would be perfect. "Take an artist like Enigma. Their track ‘Return to Innocence' has a tempo of 88 BPM – that might be ideal for a yoga session," says Karageorghis. "If you're lifting weights, you'll need something more up-tempo with a hard edge and affirmations in the lyrics. A classic would be ‘Push It' by Salt-N-Pepa (130 BPM)."
For power walking, jogging or other activities where synchronizing your movements to the music can boost your endurance, choosing tracks with 125 to 140 BPM hits the workout sweet spot. In his research, Karageorghis has cited Rihanna's discography as one that contains multiple songs in the 120 to 130 BPM range, like "Don't Stop the Music." He also mentions The Black Eyed Peas tune "The Time (Dirty Bit)" (128 BPM), LMFAO's "I'm Sexy and I Know It" (130 BPM) and Maroon 5's "Move Like Jagger" (130 BPM). If you're pushing your body to its limits with high-intensity running, "Jai Ho! (You Are My Destiny)" by The Pussycat Dolls (137 BPM) is hard to beat.
"The trick is to use music functionally in accordance with who you are, what it is that you're doing and how hard you are doing it," says Karageorghis. "The relationship that we have with music is very personal. It's not necessarily one size fits all."
It's also important to tailor your playlist to mirror your exercise heart rate, advises Karageorghis. Start with relatively slow tracks during your warm-up and then progress to faster songs as you hit the high-intensity portion of your workout. As you prepare to cool down, listening to slower paced tunes will help cap off a winning workout.
Still need some playlist help? Check out free exercise playlists on Songza, which is available on your computer or as a smartphone app.
Once you've completed your running and jam session don't forget to have a healthy snack. Check out our recommendations for best foods after a workout as a helpful guide. Don't power off your MP3 player too soon because as we've learned, food and weight loss can go hand in hand.