Music and Exercise

Exercise to Music

I am one of those people that cannot face a half hour to an hour of drudgery on the treadmill or elliptical without my iPod. Music is a sanity saver that helps motivate me and makes the time go by a little easier. At the least, music serves as a distraction from all the pain, discomfort, and sometimes boredom of pumping up and down that Stairmaster! In aerobics or step classes, the music is crucial in setting a rhythm that everyone can follow while trying to imitate the steps of the instructor and the more experienced class attendees. (I just wish they didn't have to blast out my eardrums with the volume.)

Studies show that people can improve their exercise performance with music. Synchronizing your running or cycling to the beat can actually increase endurance. According to the United States Sports Academy, there are several reasons why music helps.


Dissociation is the fancy psychological term for diversion. Music distracts the mind from thinking about how tired, sweaty, hot and bored you are while doing your training. In other words, music helps drown out that little voice inside your head that keeps saying, "Isn't it time to stop this madness?"

Arousal Regulation

Arousal regulation is the researcher's term for the psychological and emotional state of the athlete. Loud or upbeat music can help you get "psyched up" and motivated to tackle challenging tasks. Often the lyrics themselves are inspirational - think "Rocky - flying high now!" Softer or low key music can help relax you (like in yoga) or calm you down if you're anxious about performance (like before a game or match). Rock, pop or hip-hop are popular upbeat choices at gym classes. For personal workouts like treadmill running, since musical tastes are so subjective, you have to select the tunes that speak to your individual taste and emotional response.

One of my favorite motivational songs: Ain't Goin' Down 'Til the Sun Comes Up by Garth Brooks, but I'm a country girl when it comes to music!


It pays to be "in sync!" The beat of the music helps with repetitive exercise like running, rowing, or cycling. In one study, people who cycled to the beat of the music actually required less oxygen (7% less) to do the same work as those who didn't have synchronized music. This suggests that exercising to the beat can extend endurance and help the athlete utilize energy more efficiently.

I don't know what people did before the invention of the iPod. Those old Walkman units were big and clunky, how could anyone jog with that thing strapped around the waist? A great resource on iTunes is the iMix section. People post their favorite compilations or playlists there, and I have found some great workout music.

Acquisition of Motor Skills

There's evidence that music can enhance the learning of different or new motor skills. The rhythm and character of music can be imitated and expressed by the human form. There's nothing like beautiful music to bring out the graceful dancing swan in a person.

What Kind of Music?

In general, workout music should have these characteristics:

  • strong energizing rhythm
  • positive, inspirational lyrics
  • appropriate tempo or beats per minute to match the activity
  • style suited to the athlete's personal tastes and culture

Some other favorite workout tunes on my iPod:

  • She's Got the Power, Stan Bush (a song from the anime Sailor Moon)
  • Bet On It, from High School Musical 2
  • Step by Step remix, Whitney Houston from The Preacher's Wife soundtrack
  • On My Way, Phil Collins from Brother Bear soundtrack
  • That's Just the Way We Roll, the Jonas Brothers
  • If My Heart Had Wings, Faith Hill

What's on your workout playlist?

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