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Does Your Favorite Music Help or Hurt Your Workout?

Turns out, the genre of music you choose can mean the difference between a vigorous workout and a ho-hum one.

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Does Your Favorite Music Help or Hurt Your Workout?

Most of us listen to music when we exercise. I listen to the Carly Simon station on Pandora.  My husband listens to 80s. That’s what we like, so that’s what we choose.

MORE: The Uplifting Power of Music

However, when it comes to selecting music that will inspire the most energetic movement response from your body, there’s more to it than which tunes makes you tap your feet. In fact, choosing music you may not find appealing could actually benefit your workout.

Many research studies have looked at music’s effect on exercise. Findings include that music can increase the length of time someone works out, can lower their feeling of exertion, and can help them run or swim faster, among other positive outcomes. Many of these studies addressed music tempo as playing a key role in exercise motivation and performance. Most have settled on the 125-140 beats per minute range as being ideal for a workout. But as long as the music has the recommended tempo, most researchers and exercisers alike have felt it doesn’t much matter what particular style the music is—whether classical, reggae, rock, pop, folk, jazz or Latin. A July 2013 study has called that notion into question.

Researchers in Belgium discovered that, while music tempo may influence exercise pace, such as the timing of steps when walking or running, other qualities in the music, such as the beat patterns and complexity of the notes, influence the energy level of the movements themselves.

The researchers took 52 selections of music, each with 130 beats per minute, but with different musical qualities. Participants walked in synchronization with the music, meaning they took the same number of steps for each 30-second piece of music. To get a neutral reading of the walking speed and distance covered in 30 seconds of walking to a tempo of 130 beats per minute, researchers had the participants walk to a metronome with no music. If tempo was all that mattered, the speed and the distance covered during each music selection would be the same as that covered during the metronome bouts. It didn’t turn out that way. The participants walked significantly farther (meaning faster) during some music selections and significantly less far during others, even though the number of steps they took was the same. This means that they increased their stride lengths during some music selections and decreased them during other music selections. In other words, some music elicited a more vigorous and energetic movement response than others.

MORE: Kick Your Workout Routine Up a Notch

When analyzing the sonic features in terms of beat and tone, researchers uncovered that the simpler and more predictable songs encouraged more energetic movement than more complex and expressive songs. Those with a simple, undeviating binary meter (divided into equal parts divisible by two) elicited bigger steps than those that disturbed or weakened the binary meter through small timing deviations, pitch changes or loudness variations.  And songs with the simpler tonal patterns, meaning with just one or two dominant notes in the space between beats, motivated participants to take longer strides than music with three or more dominant notes per inter-beat interval. In a nutshell, the less sophisticated the music, the better for working out. 

To put findings in more subjective, laymen’s terms, the researchers had the participants categorize all of the songs, using nine pairs of opposite adjectives: good/bad, happy/sad, tender/aggressive, soft/loud, slow/fast, moving/static, stuttering/flowing, easy/difficult to synchronize with and known/unknown. The only adjectives that were significant to the music eliciting a more energetic response were bad, aggressive, loud, fast and stuttering—qualities relating to loudness and tone color. Liking or being familiar with the song or having it evoke emotions such as happiness had no motivating effect in terms of bigger steps.

So what music genre can lead you to take bigger strides in your workout? Pop/techno. Expressive genres such as reggae and jazz don’t appear to inspire the same vigorous moves. 

All this said, this particular study looked at walking in time to a set tempo. Not all exercise is about that. And though music preference had no positive effect on stride length in this study, it may very well effect how you feel about even taking a stride to begin with. I personally don’t plan on saying adieu to Carly Simon for most of my workouts. But the next time I go for a power walk, I may just try some David Guetta.

MORE: The Reason You’re Still Humming That Catchy Tune

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