Do you want to exercise in silence or exercise while listening to the Simon & Garfunkel song “The Sound of Silence?” I’m guessing you prefer the latter alternative. Did you know, though, that studies also show that people’s preference for exercising while listening to music translates into a better workout?

“Music is like is a legal drug for athletes,” Costas Karageorghis of the Brunel University School of Sport and Education told The American Council on Exercise in a report entitled “Exploring the Effects of Music on Exercise Intensity.” “It can reduce the perception of effort significantly and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent.”

The Effect of Music on Exercise

effect of musicThe research on music’s effect on exercise is compelling. The article “Does Your Favorite Music Help Or Hurt Your Workout?” reports that the positive effects include:

  • Increasing the length of the exercise workout.
  • Improving the frame of mind of the people exercising.
  • Making people feel that they are straining less.
  • Improving the performance of the people exercising.

Yes, you can, and often do run, bicycle, walk and swim faster when you are listening to music. In fact, USA Track & Field, the USA’s governing body for running, believes in the premise that music makes you run faster so much that it has banned runners from competing with headphones and audio players at its official races.

Fortunately for thousands of runners, the New York City Marathon is not governed by USA Track and Field. “Thousands of runners will begin their 26.2-mile odyssey through the five boroughs today wearing headphones hooked up to audio players like iPods,” reports “Got Headphones, Gonna Fly Now.” “Many runners say that music has the power to push them through the loneliest and most grueling parts of a race.”

For a long time, scientists studying the effect of music on exercise believed that people’s “tendency to move in time with synchronous sounds (e.g., tapping your toe in time with music or the beat of a drum)” was the crucial factor in music’s positive effect on exercise. As the beat increased up to a certain point, people were more inspired to exercise. The scientific consensus was that people achieved their best performance when the tempo of music was 125 to 140 beats per minute.

Should you listen to rock music while you exercise? Pop? Folk? Jazz? Classical? Scientists long believed that tempo was so crucial in music’s positive effect on exercise that the kind of music being played didn’t matter. This consensus existed although anyone who has ever exercised while listening to music can tell you that certain kinds of music seem to have more of a positive impact on their workout.

Of course, anecdotes don’t equal science. Now, though, researchers in Belgium confirm that us exercisers might have instinctively known more about music than many scientists. The latest science is that people exercised more energetically and effectively when they listened to simple songs than when they listened to complex and expressive songs. “In a nutshell, the less sophisticated the music, the better for working out,” reported “Does Your Favorite Music Help Or Hurt Your Workout?”

Pop music and electronic dance music had the most positive effect on athletic performance. Genres that are more expressive such as jazz and reggae had less of an effect. Interestingly, listening to a song that you like or a song that makes you happy doesn’t necessarily improve your motivation or performance.

More interestingly, listening to music actually hinders the performance of world-class athletes. The reason is that music distracts people from the pain they should be feeling as they exercise. For most people, this is a wonderful thing. Top-notch athletes, though, adjust the intensity of their performance based on how their bodies feel, the coach of 2004 Olympics marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi told. Making this assessment is more difficult when music is playing.

But for the rest of us mere mortals, unless you’re trying to become a world class athlete training for the olympics, feel free to enjoy your workouts by exercising while playing music. It will enhance your workouts, it feels great, and now you know it is good for you.

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