Is It Better to Work Out With Music?

Forget the energy drinks—if you’re looking for a safe and effective way to enhance your next workout, how about turning on your favorite music to kick off the session?

How Music Boosts Performance

"The positive benefits of combining music and exercise are blatantly apparent, and have been known about for some time," says Scott Weiss, DPT, ATC, CSCS, FACSM, the co-owner of Bodhizone Physical Therapy &  Wellness, PLLC in New York City.

Even elite athletes have taken advantage of the boost music can provide: "I know that the night and the entire morning before [Olympic gold medalist] Michael Phelps won seven gold medals [for swimming], he was on his iPod nonstop," Weiss says. "I didn’t ask what he was listening to, but I do know he’s really into rap music."

Of course you don’t have to be an Olympian hopeful—or a rap fanatic, for that matter—to get the full benefits of this energizing combination.

"Music can distract us from pain and fatigue, and possibly reduce the energy needed for a task," Weiss explains. "This can translate in to increased endurance, allowing exercisers to push themselves further during their workout. Music can also elevate your mood, reduce your rate of perceived exertion [how hard you think you're working] by 15 percent, and can be a legal performance-enhancing habit."

Looking to the Research

The concept of pairing music and exercise is certainly not new. In fact, Weiss points out that one of the earliest studies on the connection dates back to the early 1900s: "Back then, researchers found that cyclists increased their peddling speed while having a band play next to them versus cycling in a silent room," says Weiss. "Furthermore, by cycling to a specific tempo, cyclists not only helped their pace, but also inevitably reduced the amount of metabolic work and oxygen consumption needed for a specific task." The benefits remain the same today.

"Everyone can use sound waves to their benefit," he continues. "Further, the more intense the beat, the more we tend to follow it. This means that most activities can benefit from music, but the type of music plays a factor into how one performs."

Moving to the Beat

Want some ideas to get you started? "If you’re performing yoga-like moves, then slow, meditative music is best," Weiss advises. "With weight training, some exercisers listen to motivational speeches, and with running and endurance, up-beat tempo usually does the trick. Just for some clarity, tempo is usually analogous to beats per minute (BPM)." Need some help deciding what to listen to? Weiss says that research shows the following:

  • For walking, a 137-140 BPM/tempo is ideal. For a slower-paced walk, try Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" (119 BPM) while you pound the pavement.
  • For cycling, a 70-150 BPM/tempo (which can be directly related to pedaling), will get your legs pumping. For a cycle at 80 BPM, try "Hey Ho" by The Lumineers. For a faster-paced workout, go with "Kiss You" by One Direction.
  • For running, the range is 130-150 BPM, however, a tempo between 140-150 BPM is best. Weiss recommends "Locked Out of Heaven" at 146 BPM by Bruno Mars, or "Born to Be Wild" by Steppenwolf for the older crew. "For more intense running and a tempo of 150-180 BPM, try 'Bang Bang' by K'naan featuring Adam Levine, or Whitesnake's 'Here I Go Again,'" Weiss advises.

The only caveat when selecting music to boost your routine is to choose something that will inspire you. "Sounds evoke memories and can put you in a good or bad mental state, so it is important to choose the right music for your workouts," Weiss explains. "Usually one sets their music toward an upbeat tempo, but many exercisers also listen to audiobooks and podcasts while running and exercising. Both of these methods can enhance exercise to varied degrees."

Listener Beware

While rocking out while working out is a great idea, it’s important to wait until you’re in a safe area before you let the tunes kick in.

"Simply stated, we do not recommend exercise and music while running or exercising in an open, urban environment. I’ve heard too many stories of runners getting clipped, sideswiped, and being ignored by drivers of motor vehicles," Weiss explains. "When in a gym, running or weight training with music isn’t a problem, but in any open environment we should either lower the music or else not listen to anything at all. Nature and one’s own thoughts should be all the stimulus we need. It’s outright dangerous to listen to loud music while on a bike or running in a busy city."

Think Broadly

Finally, the benefits of listening shouldn’t be limited to songs. "Besides music, one can listen to self-help, motivational speeches, and podcasts that can give you the extra edge you need to attain your goals," he says. So why wait? Turn on the tunes!

Scott Weiss, PT, ATC, CSCS, FACSM, reviewed this article.


Weiss, Scott, DPT, ATC, CSCS, FACSM. Email interview, Nov. 11, 2015.