Music is a lot of things: It’s restorative, motivational, moving and educational. There are endless ways we use music to get through our days, whether listening to a sad song on repeat or hitting play on an upbeat tune.
According to Ronna Kaplan, a music therapist and adjunct music therapy faculty at Cleveland State University, “music is positive in many ways for mental health, it can be used across the lifespan” for many different situations.
One of those ways is during exercise. It can be a crucial element in enhancing your workout. Here’s how:
Your body’s movement naturally matches a song’s rhythm, which can help you stick to a specific pace.
There’s a reason your foot starts tapping or your shoulders start moving as soon as a song comes on. According to Joy Allen, the chair of music therapy and director of the music and health institute at Berklee College of Music in Boston, this is because of rhythmic entrainment, which is an “unconscious reaction — that’s what we call the entrainment.”
“Our body’s going to [move] in time with that sound or that rhythm,” she said.
So, when it comes to exercise, your body automatically falls in line with the tempo of the music “because of the way that our brains are connected with rhythm,” Allen said.
When picking music for a workout, like when going for a walk or run, for example, you’ll want to choose a tempo that is close to your natural stride. “Go [with] what seems comfortable for you and play around with different songs,” she said.
You can use music to increase your pace, too.
If you’re looking for an added challenge, pick a song with a pace that is a little quicker than your average running or walking stride, this should help you move faster throughout your workout.
You can start with a song with a slower tempo and gradually increase your speed by picking songs with faster beats, which is ideal if you’re looking to improve your walking or running pace, according to Kaplan.
“It primes the person to an outside cue,” she said. It “helps your muscles activate in their walking pattern.”
How often has someone walked into the gym, realized they forgot their headphones, and then had a not-so-great workout — or even left the gym altogether? Allen pointed out this is a common occurrence: There is a major reason why music is integral to so many people’s workouts.
The music you listen to during a workout helps with motivation, and there are several things behind that motivation.
First, you probably want to hear your favorite song on your exercise playlist, which may keep you going for longer. Second, if you put on music that’s unexpected (like if you put on reggaeton instead of your regular pop soundtrack), you will be interested in hearing what comes next in the song, which may also keep you moving longer than usual.
“If you’re always listening to the same stuff, sometimes that’s great [but] sometimes we have fatigue from it — we know what to expect and what’s coming, so it can be a little less motivating,” Allen said.
And music is distracting.
No one wants to focus on their tough workout as they’re in it. If anything, they want to not think about it. As you sing along to lyrics or are reminded of music-induced memories, songs let your mind wander throughout an exercise regimen, so you don’t have to stand (or sit) there and think about how hard your workout is.
Music keeps you from getting bored during a workout, too, which can happen when you’re doing something kind of mundane like walking on a treadmill, Allen noted. Music activates the brain by giving your mind something else to think about.
“It captures your attention… ‘oh, here’s something I’m listening to,’ so I’m not attending to what could be an uncomfortable experience with the exercise, it gives me something else to focus on,” Allen said.
You’ll reap even more benefits when you pick your music.
According to Kaplan, when someone chooses the music they’re listening to, they’ll have better results, whether working out or doing something like meditation.
A recent study led by the Department of Kinesiology at Samford University in Alabama stated, “if the music played over the speakers is not preferred by the individual giving effort, performance may suffer. Thus, coaches and athletes should consider individual music preferences when attempting to optimize performance and training.”
This further speaks to the motivation you feel when working out to music you enjoy.
Additionally, Kaplan said you might notice you’re in a better mood when working out to music you select, which may make you feel like you enjoyed your workout more. And that’s a win-win.
This may mean you’ll be more likely to work out again that week, which is a great way to hit your fitness goals.