Is there a ‘right’ kind of music for exercise?

Jane mugshot for JQAI 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!

Increase Text Size Increase Text Size

Add your thoughts