I don’t feel like a superhero every day. But when I do, it’s when I’m bombing downhill on my mountain bike with beats blasting in my brain. Listening to music while exercising makes me feel invincible, like I can break the sonic barrier and overcome any obstacles that stand in the way. Are these musically induced herculean abilities just in my head, or does music actually change the way my brain and body perform during physical activity? To gain a better perspective on the role music plays in sports and exercise, I reached out to our readers and a scientific expert for some help.
Professor Costas Karageorghis, a researcher based at Brunel University London, has spent the past 25 years studying how music affects the human body, nervous system, and behavior during exercise. His work has revealed a variety of benefits from listening to music while engaging in physical activity, such as increased motivation and delayed fatigue. But not all tunes are equally uplifting—the perks of combining music and exercise depend on the individual, exercise environment, and aspects of the music itself.
The Makings of Motivational Music
According to Karageorghis and his colleagues, motivational music—music that can enhance physical activity—is characterized by four qualities: rhythm response, musicality, cultural impact, and association. Rhythm response refers to the tempo or beats per minute (bpm) of a song and is the most important component for determining how a song will impact exercise. Musicality describes elements related to pitch, such as harmony and melody. Cultural impact captures how prevalent the song is within a society or culture. Association, the least important quality, encompasses any connections a song has to other aspects of life, like a movie or personal memory. Typically, songs with faster tempos and positive associations are more motivational when combined with physical activity.
The Benefits of Beats
Using these qualities, Karageorghis and other scientists have identified a suite of benefits from blending motivational music with exercise. These perks range from changing the way our bodies move to altering how signals are processed in our brains. Over time, these changes can encourage people to exercise for longer durations and more consistently throughout their lives.
“Humans have a naturally tendency to lock into the rhythmical qualities of music,” says Karageorghis, “and this makes human locomotion or movement patterns more regular and energy efficient.” When combined with synchronous music, “these biomechanical changes can result in lower energy expenditure,” he says, which is frequently measured by the amount of oxygen individuals consume while cycling indoors or running on a treadmill.
Along with making the body more energy efficient, music can improve mood states and delay feelings of fatigue. Numerous studies have shown that music can influence the amygdala, which controls the perception of emotions and memories associated with them. In addition, “The use of music in an asynchronous or background capacity blocks signals from travelling through the afferent nervous system, which takes messages from the musculature and organs to the central processor in the brain,” Karageorghis says. “If we think of the afferent nervous system as being analogous to internet bandwidth, the music takes up some of this bandwidth and prevents fatigue-related signals from entering conscious awareness. By blocking these negative symbols, the exercise experience is more pleasant.”
More pleasurable exercise experiences can have long-lasting positive effects. “We tend to gain the biggest cardiorespiratory benefits from engaging in high intensity exercises, but these are often associated with negative mood states,” says Karageorghis. “The memory of how painful an exercise was can be a powerful factor in preventing people from engaging in exercise habitually.” By using music to improve mood states, reduce feelings of fatigue, and create positive memories, music can motivate people to exercise for longer periods of time and more consistently throughout their lives.
Incorporating music into your exercise routine isn’t just beneficial during a workout. “The use of music, particularly music that descends in tempo from around 90 bmp to around 60 bpm can expedite the recovery process,” says Karageorghis. In these studies, recovery was evaluated by measuring blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels (a stress hormone), along with psychological metrics, such as mood state.
While there’s still plenty left to discover about how music affects our brains and bodies when combined with exercise, it appears that my superhero feelings weren’t just in my head. Listening to music while engaging in physical activities can profoundly shape the way we move, perceive emotions, and recover, but mixing music and exercise also has some downsides.
Proceed with Caution
Listening to loud music while engaging in physical activity can cause long-term hearing damage or tinnitus (ringing in the ears). “When we exercise, the blood runs from the cochlear, the shell-like part of the inner ear, towards the working muscles and the organs, and it leaves the follicles in the cochlear more susceptible to damage from the sound frequency,” Karageorghis warns. “Once these follicles are gone, they’re gone, there’s no getting them back.”
Along with hearing damage, Karageorghis doesn’t recommend using music when trying to learn a new skill or sport because it can be distracting. Many of our readers shared stories about music being an unwanted distraction during exercise. “I love music and I listen to music almost constantly, but when I go on my run each day, that’s my chance to interact with the world, to pay attention to what’s going on around me, and to open my focus,” says Katie Wolpert, an elite trail runner who has run roughly 20,000 miles over the past 25 years. “I don’t think I’ve gone on a single run with music in my ears.”
Lastly, using music in situations where full attention is required, like running or biking on busy roads, can be dangerous. According to our anonymous survey, 52% of our readers opt to leave the headphones at home because of safety issues. “Music definitely jazzes me up and helps me run faster, but when I’m running on my own, I prefer to go without music for safety reasons,” said one of our readers.
You, Your Music, and Everyone Else
The perfect song can sweep you off your feet and carry you off to a world that feels completely your own, but sometimes you unwittingly bring along those around you. Whether you’re at a race, climbing at the crag, or biking in the woods, your music has the potential to influence the exercise experiences of others. Some people enjoy eavesdropping on other people’s music. “I like going past bands when I’m running a race and hearing people bumping the bass in their cars, that’s really fun,” says Wolpert. Others prefer the peace and quiet: “When I am subjected to other people’s music, it is particularly annoying, especially while climbing because sometimes my belayer can’t hear me at the crag,” said another respondent. While it’s often tempting to share your perfectly curated playlist with the rest of the world (of course you know all the best tunes), it can also be helpful to consider how your music might positively or negatively impact others.
Just like the seemingly infinite number of musical subgenres, there are seemingly infinite number of ways to blend music and exercise—including no blending at all. While research generally supports a positive role of combining music and physical activity, it’s important to note that most of these studies were conducted inside. Exercising outdoors can be a completely different experience that may benefit individuals in ways perhaps more challenging to capture in research studies. So whether you prefer to pop in the headphones or pace to your own rhythm, just do whatever helps you, as one reader to put it, “shred ‘til you’re dead.”
Want to learn more about how music affects exercise? Check out Karageorghis’ book, Applying Music in Exercise and Sport.
Nikki Forrester, PhD, is associate editor and designer of Highland Outdoors. When she’s not pouring ambiguous liquids back and forth between oddly shaped test tubes, you can find her out shredding on her mountain bike.