I am in my early sixties with high blood pressure and diabetes. I visit my local gym thrice weekly, where they play piped music, anything from easy listening to ear-splitting modern music or commercial radio. Does gym music have to be totally invasive? Is there a “right” kind of music for exercise?
Music can have a powerful effect on us, emotionally and physically. And I suspect it may affect you sometimes in the same way as it does me, which is to put me into a thoroughly bad mood after an early morning gym workout accompanied by the relentless thud of some unwelcome club or pop mix.
Research suggests that music can make a real difference to how well we exercise. In aerobic-type classes (including aquarobics), you step, cycle or move rhythmically in time to the music, so it controls how fast and hard you work. The instructor uses the music in a precise way, changing tracks so that the tempo and rhythm (beats per minute) vary in line with the aims of the workout itself. It should leave you feeling as though you’ve done a fun and challenging workout.
In the gym, it’s a different matter. As you have noticed, the music will vary depending on the gym’s “image”, what is available, and even the preferences of individual staff. Many gyms let you plug in to a choice of music, talk radio or TV stations, using your own headset. But even then, there’s often a background selection playing, and it’ll usually be something with a strong beat.
This is because a powerful rhythm is thought to be motivating: it has an immediate physiological effect, slightly increasing our breathing and heart rates, which helps us prepare for the cardio work we are about to do. And there’s good evidence that for endurance workouts (long runs, fitness walking etc), music can provide distraction (“dissociation”) from the effort, to help put your body on auto-pilot and take your mind off any tiredness and discomfort.
It also seems that the wrong sort of music (tranquil or sedative) can interfere with your weight training efforts, although it is great to calm down and relax with at the end of a workout.
A word of warning. If you are exercising mainly for health (rather than sports or competitive fitness), you might subconsciously “tune in” to a strong background beat and end up working harder than you should. If you have a heart condition or have been advised to stick to a certain range of cardio intensity, be careful not to get carried away.
Surprisingly I can’t find any research into the effects of working out to music you hate. But I’m pretty sure it’s bad for my soul, if not my body. Why not take a personal stereo or MP3 player and enjoy your own compilations – just avoid strong and fast rhythms. And I’d really encourage you to have words with the gym staff about imposing their listening choices on their clients. They’ll only change their ways if we customers speak up!