How music can make you exercise harder

Music could be thought of as a "legal performance-enhancing drug". Source: Supplied

Music could be thought of as a “legal performance-enhancing drug”.
Source: Supplied

WANT to pick up the pace or pump out another rep? Just let the music move you.

If there’s any doubt about the power of music to boost your workout performance, consider this: In 2007, USA Track & Field, the governing body for many athletic meets in the US including the Marine Corps Marathon (the ninth largest in the world), banned the use of personal music devices to prevent runners from having a competitive edge.

Whether it’s on a run, in a gym class or even during a low-impact exercise such as tai chi, the right tunes can help keep your stamina and focus that little bit sharper.


From as far back as 1911, when studies on the link between music and training began (US researcher Leonard Ayres found that cyclists pedalled faster when a band was playing), it’s all been about the tempo – we hear a beat as we exercise and we start to match it with our movements.

However, in recent years, a factor called “rhythm response” has come into play. It’s the feeling you get when you hear a song and can’t help wanting to move to it.

Dr Costas Karageorghis, a sports psychologist at Brunel University in the UK, says, “Rhythm response is tied to how the tempo of the song (beats per minute) matches the heartbeat or cadence of the runner.”

It seems participants in most sports can tap into the “rhythm response” effect. A 2012 study at Sheffield Hallam University found that cyclists who pedalled in time to music required seven per cent less oxygen than those who covered the same distance without a soundtrack. Meanwhile, Karageorghis’ own research has found improved endurance for walkers who listen to music, while swimmers who hit the pool with a waterproof MP3 player reported a 10 per cent jump in motivation.


At the very least, listening to music demands processing power from your brain, which might otherwise be preoccupied with messages about fatigue, increased heart rate, burning lactic acid-drenched muscles and other activity processes.

By helping you temporarily ignore signals of weariness, music works as a sort of interference in low to moderate exercise, allowing you to squeeze out that extra rep. (A word of caution: Being in “the zone”, especially in headphones, can lead to impaired awareness, so vigilance is a must.)

As Karageorghis says, music could be thought of as a “legal performance-enhancing drug”.


Hit the internet to find out the beats per minute of a song and whether it will correlate to your fitness goals. Log onto, select your choice of workout (running, walking, cycling), then input your target time to cover a kilometre.

If you’re looking at a rather gentle 10 minutes per kilometre, it will calculate your ideal bpm workout rate at 89 and construct a playlist featuring the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Kanye West.

Alternatively, download the app PaceDJ ($2.99 from iTunes), which asks for a target bpm at which you’d like to work out and then creates a playlist from your existing music library.

However tempting it may be to ramp up the tempo, Karageorghis advises against it. “The sweet spot is between 120 and 140 beats per minute,” he explains. “Beyond that, it won’t make you enjoy the workout to a greater degree or result in better performance.”

What will improve it are the individual emotional associations you bring to your playlist, be it the Chariots of Fire theme tune or even a stirring Les Misérables number about overcoming adversity.

“We found that motivational qualities of music have a significant impact on the interpretation of fatigue symptoms right up to the point of voluntary exhaustion,” Karageorghis says. / August 30, 2013

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