The university’s gym is packed with sweaty people doing cardio, weight lifting and stretching. Everyone seems determined and very focused, like Rocky Balboa running those stairs.
The gym seems oddly quiet. There is no need for music blasting through speakers since almost half of the people are listening to music of their own choosing from their headphones.
Arttu Mäkelä is one of those people. Mäkelä finds that electronic hardstyle with high volume works best for him during exercise.
“Electronic hardstyle is excellent workout music as it is fast-paced and energetic. It gives me more energy and helps me focus while lifting weights.”
Elina Joutsen is lifting weights like she means business. She has made a similar choice with Mäkelä, as her musical choice for exercise leans towards electronic.
”Energetic music makes me feel more powerful”, she described.
As Mäkelä and Joutsen have noticed, music can help improve performance in exercise in many ways.
Human interaction with music is ingrained so deep that usually people don’t even notice the way music affects our movements and emotions. The physical impact of music starts in our brain: music activates the “pleasure center” and the dopaminergic pathways as a reward and motivation, similarly to eating, having sex or using drugs.
Eventually music regulates the level of arousal, enhances focus, boosts work output, improves metabolic efficiency, motivates, acts as a distractor and diverts attention from feelings of pain. As a result, music can create a flow effect, making one forget about time and space.
Of course not all music is optimal for all types of exercise. There are several musical features that affect bodily movements differently. Tempo, volume, lyrics and synchrony are the main musical variations. In addition to music-related elements, it seems that gender and personal preferences also matter for one’s exercise goal.
There are some things to keep in mind while choosing the right music to boost training. First of all, bringing one’s personal taste in music to the gym is strongly recommended since familiar music improves motivation.
Elli Harmoinen has taken note of that advice: her general choice of music during exercise includes hit songs from Spotify’s Finland Top 50 list, including popular artists like Cheek and JVG.
“Music gives me ‘me time’, boosts my experience and motivates me. I enjoy music while stretching because it can be relaxing. The lyrics are important to me as well, I can sing along while running or walking outside.”
Harmoinen is on the right track, as during a challenging workout lyrics might work as a motivator as well. According to research, women tend to pay more attention to the lyrical content, and therefore songs about determination and strength like Katy Perry’s Roar should do the trick. For men it’s the exaggerated rhythm and beat that seem to matter in the song choice.
Putting gender aside, personality is considered as another factor affecting musical preferences during exercise. For example, some musical choices are related to higher levels of aggression; in a boxing setting loud heavy metal music can therefore keep the level of arousal elevated.
Another thing to consider is the tempo. The choice of music should be coordinated with the movement, because tempo can be linked to predetermined heart rate.
According to research, an average person tends to move in sync with beats that occur roughly two times per second; our comfortable movement speed ranges therefore between 125-140 beats per minute (BpM). It’s no surprise that pop music usually falls into this “sweet spot”. That’s why increasing the tempo could encourage one to pick up the pace when doing a speed-related exercise, for example running.
Creating specific workout playlists can also benefit performance. An ideal workout playlist contains songs of one’s personal preference, but the order of songs is unexpected. Research suggests that both adhering to and violating our expectations contributes to our engagement with music: knowing the song will set out our expectations and shuffling them will somehow break those expectations.
Cheng Zeng is not very picky about songs during his exercise, but he has noted that a popular song popping up unexpectedly boosts his workout.
“When a good song comes up randomly, I can feel the pump. During weightlifting, stronger beats help, whereas during cycling melody can be important.”