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Exercise to a Beat

We’ve seen Victoria Azarenka and Andy Murray listen to music before a big match, hoping to heighten their focus and energy.  But did you know that the connection between music and exercise extends to 300 B. C., or even earlier?

You go all the way back to rowers on the Roman galleys,” says Carl Foster, Ph. D., of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, Exercise and Health Program. “The guy is sitting there beating on his drum, and he drives the basic rhythm of the rowing. Part of that is coordination—you want the rowers to row together—but part of it is that people will naturally follow a tempo. It’s just something about the way our brains work.”

Foster is describing a principle called entrainment or synchronization, where it’s natural to want to step at the rate the music is playing or pedal a cycle at the rate of the dominant beat of the music.

Music makes exercise more enjoyable, but does it affect physical performance?

Music is like is a legal drug for athletes,” says Costas Karageorghis, Ph. D., from London’s Brunel University School of Sport and Education, a world-leading authority on music and exercise. “It can significantly reduce the perception of effort and increase endurance by as much as 15 percent.”

Over two decades of research, Karageorghis has identified three primary elements about music that could possibly influence exercise performance: 1) the tendency to move in time with synchronous sounds (e. g., tapping your toe in time with music or the beat of a drum); 2) the tendency of music to increase arousal (e. g., the desire to move rather than to sit); and 3) the tendency for music to distract the exerciser from discomfort that might be related to exercise.

Buoyed by Karageorghis’ landmark research, Foster and John Porcari, Ph. D., have supervised more than half a dozen research studies on the effect of music on exercise intensity. As a whole, that body of research further supports the notion that synchronous music tends to drive exercise intensity (i. e., the faster the beat, the higher the intensity). Researchers also clearly identified the effect of increased arousal related to the tempo of music, thereby making intense exercise seem less stressful.

Foster concludes, if all things were equal, the stronger and more obvious the beat is, the more likely exercisers are to follow it.


How to choose the best exercise music:

  • Choose a distinct rhythm and an appropriate tempo/beats-per-minute (bpm) for the particular activity. The song’s bpm should correspond to the heart rate you hope to achieve during the workout.
  • Power walking: approx. 137139 bpm
  • Running: approx. 147169 bpm
  • Cycling: approx. 135170 bpm

This article is from the July/Aug 2013 issue

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