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A high-tempo playlist can make workouts easier and more effective, study suggests

“Music may be considered an important tool to stimulate people engaging in low-intensity physical exercise,” the researchers concluded.

If you want to get the most out of the music you listen to while exercising, you might want to step up the tempo of your playlist.
Photo by Benjamin Klaver on Unsplash

A lot of us listen to music while exercising — and with good reason. Music has been shown to distract us from the fatigue and discomfort associated with physical exertion, to reduce our perceptions of effort, and to increase our endurance.

It can also brighten our mood and, thus, our attitude about working out.

And that’s a good thing, as most of us don’t get enough physical activity. Despite all of exercise’s benefits — a reduced risk of certain cancers, dementia, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and depression, just to name a few — only 26 percent of men in the United States, 19 percent of women and 20 percent of adolescents meet the recommended levels of physical activity.

If you want to get the most out of the music you listen to while exercising, however, you might want to step up the tempo of your playlist. According to a new study from Italy, high-tempo music can increase the benefits of exercise, particularly during endurance activities such as walking, running and cycling.

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“We found that listening to high-tempo music while exercising resulted in the highest heart rate and lowest perceived exertion compared with not listening to music,” says Luca Ardigo, the study’s senior author and a sports psychologist at the University of Verona, in a released statement. “This means that the exercise seemed like less effort, but it was more beneficial in terms of enhancing physical fitness.”

The study was published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Study details

Music is, of course, a subjective experience, so the influence of particular types of music on behaviors, including exercise-related ones, will depend on personal preferences and even cultural factors. But there might be some common characteristics of music that enhance exercise.

Ardigo and his colleagues decided to see how much of a role tempo plays in that enhancement.

For their study, the researchers recruited 19 active women, aged 24 to 31, and had them do two separate workouts. One consisted of an endurance exercise (walking for 10 minutes at a steady pace of 4 miles per hour on a treadmill), while the other was a high-intensity exercise (using a leg press machine). Each woman did each workout under four separate conditions: in silence and with music at tempos of 90 to 110 beats per minute (bpm), 130 to 150 bpm, and 170 to 190 bpm. The order of the conditions was randomly assigned, and the workouts were performed a week apart to avoid the influence of fatigue.

The women’s heart rate was recorded during the exercise sessions, and afterward the women were asked to rate their level of fatigue.

The study found that the higher the tempo of the music, the higher the women’s heart rate — in other words, the more effort they put into the workout. Yet, their  perception of how much physical effort the workout had demanded of them fell as the tempo increased.

That finding was true during both types of workouts, but was especially noticeable during the treadmill sessions.

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“Music may be considered an important tool to stimulate people engaging in low-intensity physical exercise,” Ardigo and his co-authors conclude.

Limitations and implications

The study has some obvious limitations. Most notably, it was quite small — only 19 participants — and all of them were active, young Italian women. Whether high-tempo music would have the same effect on a larger and more diverse group of people is unknown.

Furthermore, only tempo was examined. “In the future we would also like to study the effects of other music features such as genre, melody, or lyrics, on endurance and high intensity exercise,” says Ardigò.

Still, these findings support other research on the topic, including a 2011 study that found high-tempo music increased the intensity at which people worked out on stationery bikes.

So, before you head out to wherever you go for your workouts, consider bringing along an upbeat playlist. It might get you working just a little bit harder.

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Frontiers in Psychology website, but the full study is behind a paywall.