Listening high-tempo music reduces the perceived effort involved in exercise

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With the start of the new year, gyms are at their busiest and many people are trying to establish a workout routine to improve their health.

Getting an edge by making exercise easier and more effective could be the difference between success and guiltily returning to the warm embrace of the couch.

What if doing something as simple as listening to a particular type of music could give you that edge?

A new study in Frontiers in Psychology is the first to show that listening to music at a higher tempo reduces the perceived effort involved in exercise and increases its benefits. These effects were greater for endurance exercises, such as walking, than for high-intensity exercises, such as weightlifting.

The researchers hope that the findings could help people to increase and improve their exercise habits.

Many people listen to music while exercising and previous studies have documented some of the benefits. For instance, music can distract from fatigue and discomfort and increase participation in exercise.

However, “how” we experience music is highly subjective, with cultural factors and personal preferences influencing its effects on individuals.

Music is multifaceted with various aspects such as rhythm, lyrics and melody contributing to the experience.

Until now, researchers did not understand the specific properties of music that affect us during exercise, including which types of music are best suited to enhancing certain types of exercise.

Understanding these specifics could help to unlock the full potential of music as an exercise enhancer.

The researchers set out to investigate the effect of the tempo of a piece of music on female volunteers performing either an endurance exercise (walking on a treadmill) or a high-intensity exercise (using a leg press).

The volunteers completed exercise sessions in silence, or while listening to pop music at different tempos.

The researchers recorded a variety of parameters, including the volunteers’ opinions about the effort required to complete the exercises and their heart rate while exercising, as a higher heart rate would mean that the exercise was more beneficial for physical fitness.

“We found that listening to high-tempo music while exercising resulted in the highest heart rate and lowest perceived exertion compared with not listening to music,” explained Professor Luca P. Ardigò of the University of Verona in Italy.

“This means that the exercise seemed like less effort, but it was more beneficial in terms of enhancing physical fitness.”

These effects were more noticeable in volunteers completing the endurance exercise sessions, compared with those performing high-intensity exercises, suggesting that people performing endurance activities such as walking or running may receive the greatest benefit from listening to high-tempo music.

The researchers hope that these results will provide a simple way to improve levels of physical activity. While the current study involved a small group of volunteer subjects, larger studies in the future will be needed to continue exploring the nuances of how music affects our training.

“In the current study, we investigated the effect of music tempo in exercise, but in the future we would also like to study the effects of other music features such as genre, melody, or lyrics, on endurance and high intensity exercise,” said Ardigò.

So, you could try playing fast-tempo music next time you hit the gym for a turbo-charged workout. Otherwise, it might at least get your foot tapping while you sit on the couch and eat chocolate.


Music has long been thought to affect the senses (Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998) and can act as dissociation during exercise and thus enhance exercise enjoyment and performance (Karageorghis & Priest, 2012a2012bKarageorghis, 2016).

Music is able to promote ergogenic and psychological benefits during exercise due to three proposed explanations (Karageorghis & Priest, 2012a2012bKarageorghis, 2016). First, music may allow individuals to separate thoughts from feelings.

This divergence can change ones perception of unpleasant feelings, narrowing the performers attention, and reducing the sensations of fatigue during exercise (Atkinson, Wilson & Eubank, 2004Edworthy & Waring, 2006Yamashita et al., 2006Murrock & Higgins, 2009). Second, the divergent stimulus (i.e., music) can alter psychomotor arousal (movement or muscular activity associated with mental processes) and therefore can act as either a stimulant or a sedative prior to and during physical activity (Bigliassi et al., in pressCarmichael et al., 2018Szmedra & Bacharach, 1998Yamamoto et al., 2003Schücker et al., 2009).

The third explanation postulates that during continual submaximal activity, an individual is predisposed to respond to rhythmical elements (Nikol et al., 2018Terry et al., 2012Waterhouse, Hudson & Edwards, 2010); the result being synchronization between the tempo and the performer’s movement making physical activity or exercise a more harmonious or less stressful experience (Nikol et al., 2018Rendi, Szabo & Szaba, 2008Waterhouse, Hudson & Edwards, 2010).

The available evidence on this topic is congruent and demonstrates that music can and does have a consistent and measurable effect on attention, the ability to trigger a range of emotions, affect mood, increase work output, and encourage rhythmic movement (Nikol et al., 2018Bigliassi et al., in pressKarageorghis, Jones & Stuart, 2008Scherer, 2004Terry & Karageorghis, 2011).

The “psychophysical” effects primarily examine the perception of effort which in almost all cases involves the Borgs ratings of perceived exertion scale (RPE) (Borg, 1982).

These effects are consistent for low and mild intensity activities (Nikol et al., 2018Terry & Karageorghis, 2011) and mostly consistent with high intensity activities (Moss, Enright & Cushman, 2018Haluk, Turchian & Adnan, 2009).

The effects of music on exercise in the low-to-moderate range of exercise intensities are well established (Karageorghis & Priest, 2012aCopeland & Franks, 1991Elliott, Carr & Savage, 2004).

Since very high exercise intensities are affected to a high degree by muscle metabolite-induced failures (peripheral fatigue), there is a lesser influence of the central nervous system (central fatigue) compared to lower exercise intensities (Rejeski, 1985Tenenabum et al., 2004).

However, it has been shown that peripheral fatigue alone is not able to explain the fatigue induced with higher intensity exercise (Noakes & Gibson, 2004Noakes, 2012).

While fewer studies examined the effect of music on higher intensity exercise, the positive effects seem to persist. For example, listening to music during the Wingate test led to significant improvements in peak power output (PPO) and decreases in fatigue index with the use of music (Brohmer & Becker, 2006Haluk, Turchian & Adnan, 2009).

This findings are not fully consistent with the perspective of some researchers, suggesting that the “distraction effect” of music is attenuated at higher exercise intensities (>70% maximal oxygen uptake—V̇O2max) due to the internal feedback dominating the capacity of the respective afferent nervous system (Karageorghis et al., 2011).

More importantly, it highlights some gaps in the literature with regard to the so-called intensity limitations of music benefits and the actual mechanisms that result in music ergogenic effects on exercise performance.

Further research is still necessary in order to draw decisive conclusions.

Therefore, the primary goal of this study was to examine if listening to high tempo music (130 bpm) while performing high intensity cycling bouts would prolong participants exercise duration and positively effect common physiological measures of fatigue.


More information:Frontiers in Psychology (2020). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00074 , https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00074/full

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