Harder, better, faster, stronger.
If you’ve ever struggled through a silent workout because you left your headphones at home or felt a surge of energy when your favorite song comes on, you know that, when it comes to exercise, music matters.
Research has shown that listening to music while you work out can elevate mood and make exercise seem easier. One study even suggested that it may help moderate exercisers work harder.
The effects are so pronounced that when Dr. Costas Karageorghis, a leading expert on the psychology of exercise music, reviewed the research in 2012, he wrote that music could be thought of as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.”
Building a scientifically sound workout playlist, however, requires more than just setting your iPod to shuffle and pressing play.
Here’s how to do it in just three easy steps:
1. Decide if you want to move in time with the music.
There is some disagreement about the benefits of using music synchronously during exercise — some studies say it improves efficiency, others say it makes no difference. Either way, there are plenty of people who like to move with their music. It’s particularly useful when you’re doing cardio (running, elliptical, cycling, etc.).
If you’re a runner who’d like to try synchronous running, start by determining your stride rate. That sounds complicated but all you need to do is count your steps for a minute while running at a comfortable pace. If you want to be fancy, do it several times and average the results. Once you’ve found your stride rate, you need to find music with a comparable number of beats per minute (BPM). For example, if you take 150 steps per minute, you’ll want to listen to music with approximately 150 BPM.
Don’t know the BPM of your favorite tunes? There are plenty of sites that can help! You can look up the BPM of almost any song using SongBPM.com or, if you’d prefer to search by speed instead of song, Jog.fm has a large database of popular songs organized by BPM. The app RockMyRun is another great resource.
If this sounds like a lot of work — don’t worry. You’ll still get a boost even if you don’t sync your movements to the music.
2. Opt for tunes with a strong, energizing rhythm, uplifting melodies, and inspirational lyrics.
There’s a reason fitness playlists are light on the Elliott Smith — you’re more likely to push yourself if the music you’re listening to is upbeat and energetic. Shocking, I know. While what qualifies as “upbeat and energetic” varies from person to person, the criteria for a scientifically sound workout jam do not. According to a 2011 study, here’s what you should listen for when assembling your playlist:
A strong, energizing rhythm: In order for a song to be properly motivating, it needs to be “up-tempo (> 120 bpm) and possess prominent percussive and rhythmical features.” If you are not using music synchronously, opt for music with a BPM between 120 and 145. Faster tempos do not appear to improve performance or motivation. If you can match rhythm of a song to the approximate movement patterns of your exercise, that also helps.
Mood-boosting melody and lyrics: Making you feel good about yourself is one of the ways music is most helpful during a workout, which is why you should choose tunes that promote “motivational imagery and self-talk.” While there hasn’t been a lot of research into the role lyrics play in inspiring exercisers, researchers believe songs that feature “affirmations of exercise or inspirational references drawn from popular culture” are particularly effective. Think “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift or “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen.
3. Structure your playlists like your workout.
You don’t start your workout at a sprint, so don’t start your playlists that way. According to a 2011 study, “music tempo should be selected with the expected exercise intensity in mind, and be sequenced to contour in accordance with changes in heart rate.” Gradually increasing the BPM as your heart rate increases will help you stay motivated, even if you’re not using music synchronously.
Additionally, research suggests you should pay attention to how your mix works as a whole. If you’re going to spend a half an hour on the treadmill, “consider the congruence of musical pieces that appear in close proximity ” and aim for cohesion. Abrupt changes in style or speed should be saved for transitions between exercises.
Finally, a quick word about safety.
Don’t let listening to music distract you too much. Stay in tune with your body and environment. If your fitness playlist is going prevent you from hearing people or cars, turn it off. Surviving your workout is priority number one.