Killer beats do more than just make you bust out embarrassing dance moves in the middle of the gym floor. Your favorite jams have real performance-boosting effects. There’s a reason many marathons and running races have banned music, especially for pros or anyone hoping to medal. Music can give you a competitive edge and save your sanity during a grueling workout.
Let’s be real: Most of us reach for a good playlist to make exercise more fun and to motivate us. The good news is that the science backs us up. Your favorite tunes can be a powerful way to stay on track and beat your fitness goals. Here are 10 reasons to crank it up — or turn it down — during your next gym sesh.
1. It will get you out the door
Don’t feel like putting on your exercise clothes and leaving the house? It’s time to turn on the music. Music can help motivate you to get moving. One study found that listening to music may help you get started on a run and encourage you to keep going.
2. You’ll work harder without noticing
Feel like your progress is stalling? Try adding some preselected songs to your next gym session. One study found that participants pedaled more ferociously while listening to music, but they didn’t find the extra effort to be more unpleasant than their slower pedaling without music.
Multiple studies have shown that music is especially influential during repetitive, endurance activities. Choosing the music you like best can enhance the performance boost and reduce your perceived exertion. In other words, listening to music can make your workout feel easier or encourage you to work harder without you feeling like you are.
Researchers don’t know precisely why this is true, but many attribute it to the metronome effects a good beat can have. The right song may help you maintain a steady pace, keep your mind off the difficulty of the workout, or both.
3. Jams can amp you up
Music can boost your mood and get you ready to slay. While tempo and volume both affect how the music makes you perform, how the music makes you feel is even more important.
There’s no perfect workout music for everyone. Memories the songs bring up — or even the lyrics you can’t help but belt out — are incredibly powerful and personal. What matters most is how the song or playlist makes you feel.
4. ... or calm you down
Yes, you can be too amped. Slower music, 80 to 115 beats per minute (BPM), can help you slow your heart rate and reduce anxiety before a race, game, or particularly intense workout. While the beats matter, lyrics and how you feel about the music can impact your emotions and help you regain control, according to a review in The Sport Journal. Listening to music may also help you avoid “choking” — hesitating to act when playing sports — and get you out of your head, according to a very small study.
5. Improve coordination
You don’t have to dance to the beat for music to affect the way you move. Regardless of your movement, music encourages you to move rhythmically.
A study found that listening to music you enjoy increases the electrical activity in the regions of the brain that are responsible for coordinating movements. This is why a good beat makes an aerobic or HIIT class easier to follow. Your body naturally wants to move in time with the beat.
6. Push your limits
Nothing will put the brakes on a great workout quite like fatigue. Music can help change your perception of your limits by blocking out some of your fatigue. A study with 12 male participants found that when they listened to music at different tempos while cycling, they worked harder with faster music and enjoyed the music more than slower songs.
The right music can distract you from the extra effort and leave you unaware of your increased exertion. This means that you can work out harder and get a better workout overall without feeling like you are.
However, you can’t completely blow past your body’s limits. Music is much less effective at decreasing your perceived level of exertion when you’re working to your max.
Studies have shown that once your heart rate climbs into the anaerobic zone, music stops being effective. Your body, and your muscles’ desire for oxygen, becomes louder than your tunes. Music is no match for super high-intensity workouts.
7. Make a hard workout more enjoyable
Anyone who’s ever gone to a spin class with heavy beats knows firsthand how much easier a brutal workout is with music. Good jams can help distract you from the intensity of the workout.
One study with 34 participants found that listening to music is even more effective at making a workout more enjoyable than just watching a video without sound.
Why? Because the more you’re able to lose yourself in the music and disconnect from the unpleasant feelings of an activity, the more pleasant it becomes.
Another study found that a good playlist can also help decrease your perceived level of exertion, or how hard you think you’re working, during low- and moderate-intensity exercise. The researchers also found music and video combined was more powerful, and that the effects of this combination increased with time. The longer the participants exercised, the more powerful the music and video was.
So, don’t forget to grab your headphones before a long workout!
8. … but you might be too distracted
There’s a fine line between mindlessly cranking it out on a spin bike and tossing around weights while distracted. It’s easy to forget about form or how your body is feeling when you’re grooving to the beat.
Pro tip: Be careful to check in with your body and turn down the music when you need to concentrate on a difficult move to avoid injury.
9. Improve cadence and avoid injury
Runners rejoice! Music at the right tempo can help you increase your cadence and sidestep injury. A high cadence has been tied with lower rates of injury in endurance runners. Those extra small steps help reduce the force of each footfall and keep your body better aligned on impact.
A study with 26 recreational runners found that when they ran to music between 130 and 200 BPM, they sped up or slowed down their footfalls in time with the music. So, shoot for music with 160 to 180 BPM to boost your cadence.
10. You’ll recover faster
Bring your heart rate back down and recover faster post-workout with some slow jams. A study with 60 participants found that slow music lowers blood pressure, slows heart rate, and quickens recovery time. Researchers also noted recovery with slow music was faster than with silence or fast music.
Another study with 12 participants found that while fast music can improve your intensity during a workout, slow music can help you return to your resting heart rate faster.
This means that listening to soothing beats can reduce cardiac stress and speed recovery so you’re ready for your next workout sooner. The right songs can also help you relieve stress. Stress delays recovery and negatively impacts performance.
Don’t worry if you can’t bring along your tunes to every gym class. There are limits to the wonders of music, anyway.
Music can’t magically push you beyond your physical limits. It has little effect on strength, endurance, and perceived effort when at a max heart rate or in an anaerobic zone. Unfortunately, music just can’t make every workout a fun jam session.
Still, music can transform a miserable workout or slogging in the gym into something to look forward to. From better performance to increasing your recovery, the right songs can have real effects on your mind and body. Go ahead and pump it up!
Mandy Ferreira is a writer and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s passionate about health, fitness, and sustainable living. She’s currently obsessed with running, Olympic lifting, and yoga, but she also swims, cycles, and does just about everything else she can. You can keep up with her on her blog (treading-lightly.com) and on Twitter (@mandyfer1).