The Science Behind Your Favorite Workout Playlist
Looking to boost your athletic performance? Start with your music.
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Whether your workout includes an hour of sun salutations or a series of sprints, music can help prepare your body for the task at hand—and make you feel better while doing it. Research has shown that a good playlist could help ease workouts, reduce fatigue, and increase athletic performance by affecting both heart rate and brain waves. “Music in most contexts enhances what you’re doing. It acts as a subconscious motivator,” says Dario Slavazza, an ethnomusicologist at Feed.fm, a service that puts together workout playlists for fitness apps like Asics Studio, Daily Burn, Fitbit Coach, and MoveWith. “[As] the music picks up the pace and intensity, people’s heart rates and breathing patterns fall into the beat. Your body picks up on rhythms.”
When exercising, the average 35-year-old should shoot for a heart rate of between 93 and 157 beats per minute. That rate varies depending on fitness level and stamina—seasoned athletes can reach up to 85 percent of their maximum heart rate and still be comfortable, according to the American Heart Association, while less experienced athletes should shoot for the lower half of this range.
For years, scientists have studied the link between music and heart rate. In 2005, a team of researchers found that listening to music with a fast tempo could speed up heart rates, while a leisurely tempo could slow them down. Furthermore, crescendos—where the volume of a song gradually rises—can increase heart rates, while decrescendos have the opposite effect, according to a small study from 2009 published in the journal Circulation. Although scientists aren’t certain why and how these interactions happen physiologically, relaxing music could be used to maintain a level of serenity for lower-intensity activities like yoga. “I always set my metronome at 60 [bpm] because it’s lower than the normal heart rate, and it helps me relax,” says Rodney Garnett, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Wyoming. “Something that has a slower beat gets a different response than something that has a fast beat.”
Another perk: listening to music can make a workout feel less challenging. Research suggests that music activates the subcerebellum and amygdala, which regulate emotions like pleasure, while also decreasing interactions between the areas of the brain that are responsible for communicating fatigue and reducing performance abilities. Fast workout music causes neurons to fire longer and with stronger pulses, suggesting that people don’t need to think as much about their workouts when listening to a killer playlist. Instead, they can let their minds wander, reducing the cognitive perception of strain while muscles continue to perform with less conscious processing, says Costas Karageorghis, a psychophysiologist at Brunel University in London. If a bopping melody isn’t enough to get you through a tough workout, a song’s lyrics can provide an extra boost of motivation with different positive affirmations and associations, Karageorghis says.
But there’s a limit to how much music can help a workout. After reaching about 85 percent of aerobic capacity—measured by the amount of oxygen sent to your muscles during a workout—music appears to not make much of a difference, as the brain seems to be overwhelmed with signals of fatigue. (Though aerobic capacity is traditionally measured with special equipment that tracks oxygen uptake, the 85 percent mark is often signaled by heavy breathing, inability to hold a conversation, and sweating.)
While scientists have been studying music’s role in physical performance for years, there are still many unanswered questions. Because both workouts and musical preferences are so personal, it’s up to each individual to figure out which songs are best for their exercise routine. “[Music] is a motivator. What’s interesting is how those motivators differ from person to person and activity to activity,” Slavazza says. “For me, that’s extremely fascinating.”
Looking to improve your workouts with music? Below are some example playlists from Karageorghis’s book Applying Music in Exercise and Sport.
For a 10K run at a 45-minute pace, Karageorghis recommends this playlist. Starting at 68 bpm, the songs increase in tempo to correspond with an increase in strides, ending at 95 bpm.
For an extra kick during difficult parts of a workout, Karageorghis recommends creating a highly personal playlist of “power songs.” Here’s an example from a runner in Karageorghis’s book, though you can make your own playlist from tracks that remind you of times when you felt strong and in control.
For a cooldown, this playlist contains songs to help induce a relaxed, contemplative state of mind. The tempo gradually decreases with each song, ending at 55 bpm.