The connection between music and movement is ancient and primal—a good dance song practically forces your body to move. We take it for granted today that music improves an exercise session, yet 50 years ago, American exercise was silent and filled with grim calisthenics.
Back then women were not welcome in most gyms, and the most successful workout song of the 1960s was a marching band number for PE classes called “The Chicken Fat Song,” sung by Broadway star Robert Preston. It had lyrics such as “Nuts to the flabby guys!” and “Give that chicken fat back to the chicken … Go, you chicken fat, go!”
But the relationship between music and fitness changed for the better in 1969, when two professional dancers (Jacki Sorensen and Judi Sheppard Missett, the creator of Jazzercise) independently hit on the idea of choreographing casual dance moves to popular songs for exercise. Their aerobic dance classes exploded in popularity.
Workout music didn’t hit its stride, however, until 1979, when Sony released the Walkman TPS-L2 portable cassette player (and lightweight headphones) to the U.S. market. At a monstrous 14 ounces (compared to 1.1 ounces for an iPod Nano), that first Walkman was heavier than the transistor radios that had been available since the late 1950s, but it allowed you to choose your own music, choreographing the workout pace just as Sheppard Missett and Sorensen did.
Note: As always, when exercising to music in the outdoors, it's important to be mindful of your surroundings. Keep the volume low, wear one earbud, or stay away from headphones entirely when in or near traffic situations.
Researchers have documented several ways that rocking out helps you tune in to your workout. The first is simply distraction—a favorite song can mask the fact that your lungs are burning and your legs feel like jelly. This is especially helpful when fighting the boredom of a treadmill or stationary bike.
One 2011 study found that perceived “time to exhaustion” was nearly 20 percent longer when listening either to motivational or neutral music, compared to no music, and mood was significantly improved.
Some people, such as Gonzaga University math professor Tom McKenzie, prefer non-musical distraction, in his case stand-up comedians such as Melinda Hill. But that only works for the first three miles or so of his run.
“When I stop laughing, it’s time to switch to music” because it gets too hard to concentrate, he says. By mile 10 of his 12-mile run, “I need some old music I’ve heard a thousand times before, like the Rolling Stones.”
Distraction is only part of the tuneful advantage, though. Studies by sports psychologist Costas Karageorghis and other researchers have found other ways that music improves performance. These include synchronization (matching your movement to a song’s beat or cadence), “arousal regulation” (psyching up or calming down before an event), acquisition of motor skills (by helping you learn or remember specific physical movements), and attainment of “flow,” the scientific name for that Zen-like immersion in a task often called being “in the zone.”
For example, a 2008 study by Bacon, Myers, and Karageorghis of “participants who cycled in time to music found that they required 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as compared to cycling with background [unsynchronized] music.” And an interesting 2012 trial found that increasing the tempo of music—even the same song sped up—led cyclists to work harder.
In fact, music is so powerful in boosting performance that in 2007, USA Track & Field banned portable music players from their sanctioned races. The rule remains in effect for runners who might win money or a prize.
We Got the Beat
J.S. Epperson, a leading composer of music for meditation and yoga classes, has done research on music’s effect on brain waves and heart rates. He notes that people have used tunes to regulate mental and physical states since ancient times, from war drums to movie scores. “Aggressive workout music can engage the fight-or-flight instinct, which makes a lot of sense if you’re running. But you wouldn’t listen to Nine Inch Nails while you meditate,” he told The FruitGuys Magazine.
He notes that the biggest exercise operations, from Zumba to Jazzercise, use precisely choreographed (and copyrighted) music mixes to get your body into target zones for heart rate, calories burned, respiration, etc. “Power” classes that mix weights and resistance with cardio aim for 115 to 120 beats per minute (bpm), while high-intensity cardio programs routinely aim for 125 to 140 bpm. “Most yoga and meditation music will hit between 60 and 72 beats per minute (bpm), but some more athletic-oriented ‘power’ yoga and ‘strength’ yoga is centered more around 95 to 100 bpm,” Epperson says.
Today, there are thousands of workout playlists available on streaming services such as Spotify, YouTube, Google Play, and SoundCloud. The newest innovation is a set of smartphone apps that locate music on your device to match the precise pace you’re running at. Most limited or ad-driven versions of these apps are free.
The Spotify streaming service for Android and iPhone has a dedicated running mode with original running songs and playlists that match your tempo. RockMyRun follows your pace or lets you set a fixed rate if you prefer, with music curated by top DJs. PaceDJ does the same thing as RockMyRun, but with your music instead of theirs. (It takes a while to analyze your library first.) But for a real twist, consider Zombies, Run!, an interactive story about, yes, zombies chasing you, that changes based on how fast you run. If upbeat music doesn’t get you running faster, the threat of your brains being eaten might work better.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution. He writes regularly about health and science for the Oregon Bioscience Association; his work has also appeared in Harvard Magazine and the Oregonian newspaper.