Fitness magazines and websites love to ask readers about their favourite workout music while presenting their playlists or suggestions from celebrities. Self.com features the “1980s cardio playlist”, which includes the short-shorts video classic Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go by Wham!. On Fitnessmagazine.com, the singer Rihanna reveals her favourite workout songs—immodestly recommending four of her own for “when you have to pick up the pace on the treadmill.”
Wired: The racier the song, the better the run.
The playlist fixation has a scientific basis: Studies have shown that listening to music during exercise can improve results, both in terms of being a motivator (people exercise longer and more vigorously to music) and as a distraction from negatives such as fatigue. But are certain songs more effective than others?
Generally speaking, there is a science to choosing an effective exercise soundtrack, said Costas Karageorghis, an associate professor of sport psychology at Brunel University in England, who has studied the effects of music on physical performance for 20 years. Karageorghis created the Brunel Music Rating Inventory, a questionnaire that is used to rate the motivational qualities of music in the context of sport and exercise. For nearly a decade, he has been administering the questionnaire to panels representing different demographics, who listen to 90 seconds of a song and rate its motivational qualities for various physical activities.
One of the most important elements, Karageorghis found, is a song’s tempo, which should be 120-140 beats per minute, or BPM. That pace coincides with the range of most commercial dance music, and many rock songs are near that range, which leads people to develop “an aesthetic appreciation for that tempo,” he said. It also roughly corresponds to the average person’s heart rate during a routine workout—say, 20 minutes on an elliptical trainer by a person who is more casual exerciser than fitness warrior.
Karageorghis said Push It by Salt-N-Pepa and Drop It Like It’s Hot by Snoop Dogg are around that range, as is the dance remix of Umbrella by Rihanna (so maybe the pop star was on to something). For a high-intensity workout such as a hard run, he suggested Glenn Frey’s The Heat Is On.
Haile Gebrselassie, the Olympian from Ethiopia who has won the gold medal at 10,000m, often requested that the techno song Scatman, which has a BPM of around 135, be played over the sound system during his races.
The musical style that seems to most reliably contain a high BPM is dance music, said Richard Petty, founder of Power Music, a company that has produced workout compilations for instructors and fitness enthusiasts for two decades. Petty, a former DJ takes a metronomic approach to making exercise music: He chooses a hit song with a catchy melody—say, Gold Digger by Kanye West—and produces a remix whose BPM count is tailored to experience level and type of workout.
Much of the research done on music and exercise is geared toward aerobic workouts such as jogging and cardio. But as anyone who has heard Metallica blasting from a weight room stereo knows, music is a motivator in strength training, too. “The vast majority of bodybuilders are fans of heavy metal, if not in their personal life at least in the gym,” said Shawn Perine, a senior writer at Flex magazine. Loud, aggressive music, he said, “keeps you elevated, especially in between sets.”
Perine prefers to work out to hip hop. “Let’s say you’ve done a gruelling set of squats,” he said. “You’re out of breath, and L.L. Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out comes on. Your energy won’t flag.”
©2008/The New York Times
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