Pumping beats – the link between Music & Exercise


Working in the gym has really highlighted the connection between exercise and music that I have never really given much thought to…..  or so I believed before I looked into it.  In reality my enjoyment of a class or gym session is very much based on what tunes are playing.

I will quite happily spend half an hour working on a gym playlist, matching the rhythms of the songs with my planned routine – with a mixture of pop, dance, RnB and soul depending on the amounts of cardio vs. resistance work I plan on doing…… and if I ever forgot my headphones it would almost be enough to put me off going to the gym…

Similarly, when a new “release” is unveiled in a group exercise class (Body Combat, Metafit etc) my enjoyment of that class is swayed a lot by the music – I remember one particular class that had the Duck Sauce “Barbara Streisand” track in it and I disliked the tune so much I would sit out half the track to get a drink/go to the loo/recover from a “stitch”…. likewise if a track is great it can get the whole room buzzing and talking about it.

The same seems to be true for the vast majority of people in the gym, looking around 70-80% of the people in the gym wear headphones – the few that don’t tend to be the ones who exercise with a friend/s so that they can chat.

The gym is a bit of an oddity when it comes to music – clients will ask for it to be turned up/down, some will pass you a CD and ask you to play it, some will even ask to turn it off! Inevitably you can’t please everyone, all the time so most gyms end up playing mixed dance CD’s or will have the radio on in an attempt to keep the majority of people happy.  The problem with the radio though is that the music is interrupted by a lot of talking and all hell can break loose if a ballad comes on!

The emotional link between music and exercise has been the subject of hundreds of studies dating back to 1911 and it’s not just a case of using a lot of fast-paced tracks. Movement and rhythm has been around for thousands of years – think of soldiers training to a cadence/chant or slaves rowing a huge ship as a guy beats a large drum…..

Choosing the songs you workout to can be a minefield. They can have a lot of meaning to individuals in terms of the emotions they evoke. It could be the actual lyrics, the singer’s voice or the memories that they bring to mind. For others it’s the rhythm and general “feel” of the song that get’s them moving.

The studies have shown that one of the most important aspects of working-out with music is the tempo of the track compared to what is known as “Rhythm response” or in other words how much it makes you want to move – be it dance, run, lift…. with most people preferring something between 120 and 145bpm. This tends to explain why gyms seem to opt for the dance CDs but in reality other music genre’s cover this range too.

Billboard did a great survey of which genres of music people used and found dance music to be most popular for cardio, RnB/rap for resistance, ambient for stretching etc. which confirms people like to match the rhythm of the music with the rhythm of the activity – but again makes it difficult for the gym itself with everyone doing different things at different times.


A study by C.J. Bacon At Sheffield Hallam University in 2012 showed that by synchronizing your movement with the song it can actually make your energy use more efficient! They found that cyclists that cycled in time to music used 7% less oxygen than those that didn’t.

Research has also shown that during low-moderate intensity exercise, as well as lifting a person’s mood and motivating them to work harder, it can also act as a distraction – we all know the gym can be boring sometimes. Your body constantly monitors itself – heart rate, sweating, build up of lactic acid etc. and  it is suggested that music can sometimes compete with this feedback in the brain, as well as altering a person’s perception of effort. It always “seems” easier to run for longer or lift a few more reps and because you’re enjoying a particular track it can help you to ride out a wave of fatigue. It doesn’t however, have the same effect on high-intensity exercise, where the body’s feedback over-rides the music, to let you know that you need a break.

Of course there are times that music should not be used or when you need to be careful such as if exercising outside, when you need to be able to hear what is going on around you including traffic!

Many athletes will use music prior to an event rather than during – to help them focus and motivate them to perform, and distract the from outside influences – think professional footballers getting off the team coach, athletes pre-race etc.

Smartphone apps are also getting in on the act with some offering motivational phrases/countdowns as you complete set exercises, or the ability to automatically choose songs within your music library based on a heart rate monitor.

Even the headphones themselves seem to be an integral part of gym-wear now with some opting for the the fashion of overly large on-the-ear types, for others the understated in-ear, some are wired, some can use bluetooth/wifi, some are made of specialist sweat proof plastics – there are hundreds to choose from these days, with pros and cons for each.

Looking at the research I think our gym needs a little overhaul on the music they play to put a bit more variety in the mix – how about some 80’s, 90’s, Rock, RnB…. rather than just dance music ALL THE TIME?

Whatever your choice in music motivation – be mindful of the volume and if you forget your headphones – apologies 😉



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