By: Aaron Fischman
The Popular Pairing of Music and Fitness
Most active people listen to music while performing their workouts, and you probably do it too. If you don’t, mostly everyone around you does, as you see it every day.
The actress Jane Fonda actually played a significant role in popularizing the use of music in athletic training, according to Brunel University’s Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., who has become a leading expert on the topic thanks to more than 20 years of intense research. “She [Fonda] realized that there was a bit of a niche in the market and that if you could ally music with physical activity, you had more of a chance of getting people physically active.” Fonda released her first exercise video, titled “Jane Fonda’s Workout,” in 1982. Since, she followed up with 23 additional videos in the series, which, including the original went on to sell more than 17 million total copies.
Karageorghis noted that the advent of various technologies – products that allowed people to easily bring their music with them – helped fuel this trend. The Walkman was introduced by Sony in 1979. Just three years later, Sony was also the first to release a portable CD player, which they called the “Discman.” Portable MP3 players began to appear in 1999, and by 2004, Nike and Philips partnered to launch the Portable Sport audio player, which they claimed was designed specifically for the active consumer. Around the same time, iPod sales started to pick up serious stream even though the product was released in 2001.
As a result of these developments, “Music has become prevalent, I would say almost ubiquitous, in the sports and exercise field over the last 20 years,” said Karageorghis.
The Three Benefits
According to Karageorghis’ more than two decades of research, music allows for greater athletic performance in three ways: 1) It reduces perceived exertion, 2) lifts the participant’s mood and 3) encourages the listener to coordinate his/her movements to stay on beat.
The research shows that if you listen to music while performing an activity of low-to-moderate intensity (light jogging or cycling, for instance), it will reduce your perceived exertion by 8 to 12 percent. In other words, the music’s presence will make you feel like you’re not working quite as hard. The reduction in perceived exertion is enjoyed even if the music is selected arbitrarily, and doing so takes into account the person’s musical tastes and the type and intensity of the workout.
According to Karageorghis, it’s been known for years that music can lift one’s mood when performing low-to-moderate intensity exercises. He and his team, however, found that music’s positive affective qualities are not limited to low-to-moderate intensity workouts. “We’ve shown in a recent string of studies that well-selected music also has the propensity to enhance affect at very high intensities of exercise…in fact, right up until the point of voluntary exhaustion.”
This finding is significant, because one big reason why people give up on their regular workouts is that they feel bad when they’re exerting themselves so much. “Although music can’t influence what you feel at these high intensities, it can influence how you feel it,” Karageorghis said. “In other words, it seems to color our interpretation of fatigue, and I think therein lies the real power of music for Joe and Josephine Public.”
The research’s mention of “synchronous music” refers to music that’s coordinated with a participant’s physical movements. By contrast, when participants listen to music asynchronously, their movements are not matched to the beat.
Conventional wisdom has long posited that music, whether synchronous or not, should progressively increase performance as the beats per minute increase. Karageorghis’ research has found, however, that with asynchronous music, athletic performance improves between 120 and 140 beats per minute, but that no additional benefit is derived from moving beyond that level. He calls it a “ceiling effect.”
Although using music in both ways has been found to improve athletic performance, synchronous music produces the best results. “If I put this into numbers,” said Karageorghis, “asynchronous music can generally lift performance – depending on what the performance is and a whole load of other factors – between say 2 and 10 percent. Synchronous music can lift performance between about 8 and 20 percent.” In fact, when compared with a control group who didn’t listen to any music, people who worked out synchronously on all intensities up to exhaustion saw ”performance benefits in the order of 15 percent.” It’s also worth noting that the people studied were recreationally active people as opposed to elite athletes.
Synchronizing one’s movements to the music can take some work. If you want to synchronize your movements extremely closely to music, you’ll need to film yourself at different intensities. Karageorghis even sits in the back of a quad bike and films runners to determine their stride rates. He then selects songs so that their rhythm will coordinate with the runner’s strides. Occasionally, he’ll manipulate the songs by a beat or two in order to make the match even tighter.
Fortunately for the everyday person, many exercise machines now show the revolutions per minute a person is creating. There’s also an iTunes plug-in, for instance, that allows users to create playlists based on songs’ beats per minute. Even easier, Karageorghis says that many people will work out to the beat using trial and error. It certainly helps that most pop music falls into the range of 115 to 135 beats per minute. Another easier way to maximize the benefits of synchronous music is to take part in a group class, such as Zumba, aqua aerobics or step aerobics, because movements in those classes are designed to go along with the beat.
Not Everyone Listens to Music
There are high-performing athletes, as well as everyday people, who prefer to train without music. Nearly 25 years ago when Karageorghis was beginning his research career, he interviewed decorated British Olympic decathlete Daley Thompson. Karageorghis asked about his use of music during training and competition and was told, “Music is an anathema to me. I always listen to my body. I never have a need for music.” Streak runner Jon Sutherland doesn’t listen to music during his runs, either.
“It’s not necessarily for everyone,” said Karageorghis, “but generally speaking, people who struggle to get to the gym and are looking for a mild stimulant might benefit from integrating well-selected music into their routine.”
For Karageorghis, the next step over the coming years will be to isolate the effects of music on long-term workout adherence. In other words, he strives to determine which factors of music and other contingencies make people more or less likely to stick with their workout routine. He understands that it will be a challenge, because people quit working out for countless reasons, but he’s prepared to dive in regardless. If anything useful can be gleaned, people who are active, as well as those who are looking to start working out again, will have more information at their disposal.