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Science Uncovers the Perfect Playlist

Thirty years ago, Fred Hoffman, MEd, 2007 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year, taught with a light heart and a heavy bag of vinyl records. “I brought a stack of albums with me to class,” he recalls. “I changed the music after each song, [switching] the LP each time. There was no such thing as mixed music!”

Soon, bulky LPs gave way to cassettes, which yielded to CDs and finally to MP3 players and digital music. Today’s instructor can choose from a dizzying selection of song-related technology for sampling, mixing and playing motivational tracks. And that is very exciting—because when it comes to getting a good sweat, music really matters.

This article looks at research on how and why music is so important to exercise participants and to a fitness professional’s career. It also examines practical ways to make programming shine, with experts offering tips on how to take the research and create the perfect playlist for both group exercise and personal training modalities.

The Science of Movement and Music
Exercising with music has numerous proven benefits, ranging from psychological to psychophysical. For example, many people know how time can sometimes fly by during a workout. Athletes refer to this minimally conscious experience of exercising on internal autopilot as being “in the zone.” The scientific term, coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, PhD, is being in “a flow state” (1990). As it turns out, self-assessed flow ratings strongly correlate with musical enjoyment in group exercise classes (Karageorghis 1999).

Indeed, studies comprehensively show that music distracts exercisers from discomfort and enhances mood at both medium and high levels of exercise intensity. Since many people say that discomfort is a barrier to exercise, this is welcome news. Participants report less pain and fatigue, and lower ratings of perceived exertion, when working out with music. They are also likely to work harder and for longer than they would with no music (Karageorghis & Terry 1997), enabling them to reap many positive health outcomes.

A 2012 review of 32 music-and-exercise studies examined the ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effects of music. Twenty-four (75%) of the studies reported that physical performance improved when music was played (Karageorghis & Priest 2012).

Music’s effects may also be measured in physiological terms. One study compared data from fit men in their mid-20s who ran on a treadmill with music and then with no music (control protocol), 3 days apart (Szmedra & Bacharach 1998). Both trials were completed at 70% of maximal oxygen consumption. The with-music trial yielded lower exercise heart rate, lower blood pressure and lower levels of plasma lactate (a blood-borne waste byproduct of exercise) compared with the no-music trial.

Background Music Matters
Do you need to be a trained musician and perfectly craft a choreographed routine to help clients get in the zone? Not necessarily.

Music is described as “synchronous” when your clients move to the beat, as in a step or Zumba® class. It is “asynchronous” when played without a conscious attempt to follow the beat; for example, when you play background music in the weight room or during a circuit class. Each variation has been studied on its own merits. The results?

There isn’t much research that directly compares the effects of synchronous music with those of asynchronous music (Karageorghis & Priest 2012). When individually examined, however, both have been shown to benefit exercise participants (Karageorghis & Terry 1997; Pates et al. 2003). Each type provides both psychological and ergogenic benefits (BASES 2012). Yet, while both provide equal psychophysical benefits, synchronous music appears to have a greater ergogenic effect (Karageorghis & Priest 2012).

“It is logical to infer that, when movements are synchronized to music, additional benefits are obtained both in terms of dissociation (through having to focus on keeping time) and in terms of energy efficiency in repetitive endurance activities and those with a marked rhythmic component (e.g., callisthenic-type exercises),” says music and exercise researcher Costas Karageorghis, PhD, coauthor of Inside Sport Psychology (Human Kinetics 2011) and deputy head of research at the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University in London.

Personal Preference Counts
You will always have some participants who are less than keen on your exact song selections. But there’s good news: Even if a participant doesn’t love every track, his or her performance will still be enhanced, and perceived exertion decreased, with activity-appropriate music.

Using 30-minute bench-stepping bouts as the workout, a 2000 study compared the effects of asynchronous, traditional Japanese folk music with the effects of synchronous dance music and those of a metronome (Hayakawa et al. 2000). Researchers found that both types of music trials elicited fewer feelings of fatigue than the metronome trial, and that the task-appropriate dance music, in particular, increased feelings of vigor relative to the asynchronous folk music.

Of course, using music that is both task-appropriate and loved by your clients is ideal. Research has consistently demonstrated that “well-chosen” music—tracks selected with participant preferences and task characteristics in mind—creates more measurable physical benefits than “neutral” or “oudeterous” (neither motiving nor demotivating) music (Karageorghis & Priest 2012; Terry et al. 2012). However, self-selected music is only best “when the participants make appropriate choices for the given task and situation,” notes Karageorghis.

Tempo Impacts Motivation
Fast, upbeat tunes create a stimulative effect for listeners, while slow, soft songs produce a calming (sedative) effect (Terry et al. 2012). Music intended to relax participants—during a cool-down or yoga class, for example—should therefore have nondominant percussive and rhythmical characteristics and a tempo of less than 80 beats per minute. The inverse is true of music intended to stimulate; it should have a strong beat and a tempo exceeding 120 bpm (Karageorghis & Priest 2012). Additionally—personal trainers take note—it pays to boost the beat to correlate with desired work intensity. Why? Exercise participants’ preferences for fast-tempo music appear to increase as exercise intensity increases (Karageorghis et al. 2011).

Fitness Levels May Matter
How fitness level affects music’s impact on individuals is not yet well understood. While it appears that untrained participants are likely to glean more advantage than trained (fit) subjects, it is unclear exactly why.

“Tentative findings that require more detailed investigation are that untrained participants tend to derive greater benefit from music, while those who are highly trained prefer to ‘listen to their bodies,’” says Karageorghis. “My experiences in research and applied practice lead me to suggest that it is the recreationally active [versus the highly trained] who stand to gain most from music-related interventions.”

Music Helps Special Populations
Pairing music with movement has also been shown to help special populations. In a 25-week study, rhythmic music boosted exercise participation among patients with dementia; researchers found that patients were more motivated to move when background music was played (Mathews, Clair & Kosloski 2001).

In a 2005 study, music also benefited performance in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Upper-extremity functional performance on physical tasks completed regularly over a 4-week period improved overall in the music-listening group, but not in the no-music group (Bauldoff et al. 2005).

Directions for Future Research
Much about the relationship between music and exercise remains unconfirmed, scientifically speaking. For example, it is unclear whether music played during exercise has the same impact on seniors as it does on the young, fit populations frequently used as research subjects. Other ongoing questions include how listeners’ personality type(s) impact the effect(s) of music; what happens to musical influence beyond the anaerobic threshold; and the role of gender and other personality variables on ideal song selection (Karageorghis & Priest 2012). All of these areas are interesting subjects for potential research and may directly apply to exercise programming.

Music Mapping
It’s clear that research supports the marriage of music and movement, which is something fitness professionals already knew. However, if you’re tone-deaf or otherwise not musically inclined, what can you do to help participants and clients gain the most from their workouts? Ask one of the world’s preeminent music-and-movement researchers about perfect songs for sweating and you’ll get an answer remarkably similar to the one you’d expect from a world-class instructor: Use beat-heavy, upbeat, mid-to-high-tempo tunes.

Karageorghis has invested two decades of research and written over 150 scholarly articles on the matter. He cites Flo Rida’s “Let It Roll” as ideal music to get you moving. Dance expert turned group-cycling guru Julz Arney, the education programs director and lead master trainer for Schwinn Cycling who lives in Laguna Beach, California, says almost the same thing. She loves “anything by Pitbull or Flo Rida” for her classes.

Can you engineer the perfect workout song? Here’s what science says you need.
Play prominent percussion. Choose tracks with a strong, repetitive beat, such as “I Like to Move It,” by Reel 2 Real. “The rhythm helps listeners optimize activation levels during a workout,” says Karageorghis.

Hop to happy harmonies. Music uses either “major” or “minor” harmonies, both of which give a song its emotional “color.” In Western musical traditions, major chords are associated with happy and positive feelings, and minor chords convey a sense of melancholy or foreboding. Well-known major-key hits include Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” and ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.” Famous songs in minor keys include “Disturbia,” by Rihanna, and “Losing My Religion,” by REM. Karageorghis recommends choosing fitness tunes with a “positive harmonic blend with a predominance of major harmonies” to keep the mood upbeat.

Prefer positive lyrics. Choose songs with buoyant lyrics (“Reach for the sky!”) or movement-related words (“Work your body!”) What is Karageorghis’s lyrical pick? “Beat It,” by Michael Jackson. “Affirmations in the lyrics are important,” he notes, “and more so at low-to-moderate intensities, when they can be better processed.”

Foster personal and cultural connections. The songs you select must be compatible with clients’ sociocultural backgrounds and demographics (BASES 2012). For example, consider the song “Gonna Fly Now,” from the film Rocky. This song motivates, but only if your participants are the right age and have the right background to retain an emotional connection to the film.

Reach for repetitive rhythms. The same urge that compels you to tap your toe to a tune is what makes participants pedal to the beat of the music. So choose tempos that approximate the cadences of the activities you instruct (BASES 2012). This may correspond to one movement for every beat (such as 120 bpm for step) or one for every second beat (such as a 160 bpm song that matches a cycling cadence of 80 revolutions per minute).

When in doubt, use music in the range of 125–140 bpm for most repetitive cardiovascular activities (BASES 2012). Select slower music for warm-ups and cool-downs. For high-intensity exercise (e.g., hard running above one’s ventilatory threshold), Karageorghis recommends high-tempo music (135–140 bpm). Of course, always ensure participants can move safely at the tempo you choose.

In the early stages of your workout, Karageorghis advises, tempo should match working heart rate. “The optimal beats per minute are about 5% above your working heart rate. When the heart rate gets above 140 bpm, there is a ceiling effect,” he explains, “and increasing the tempo of the music in a corresponding fashion does not lead to any additional benefit.”

For synchronous music, determine your work rate per minute by asking a friend to film you (running, for example), says Karageorghis. Then find music that ties in with this measured work rate and the rhythm of your movement, and match the bpm to your natural cadence. Alternatively, to use music as an ergogenic aid, choose a tune that is 1–2 bpm above your natural cadence, Karageorghis adds.

Creating the Perfect Playlist
Once you’ve selected great songs, how can you compile the perfect playlist? Top industry experts weigh in.

Know Your Tunes
Listen to an entire song before putting it on your playlist, says Arney. Pay attention to the transitions between songs. Are they too abrupt? Is there an energy lull? “Not being familiar enough with a song—and therefore missing critical energy changes—can have a big impact on how hard your class works,” Arney says.

Start Strong
The first tune of the class sets the tone, so make it count, says Arney. “I like to kick off my group cycling classes with what I call a ‘party song’ to set the mood,” she says. “This grabs students’ attention and sends the message that this class is going to be high energy and not boring, even if the modality (pedaling) can be a bit monotonous.”

Match Work and Recovery Cycles
Some classes (think cycling, circuits or boot camp) benefit from changes in energy between songs, advises Rob Glick, an award-winning instructor and longtime industry presenter who lives in Orange County, California. “If it’s a recovery portion of class but the music doesn’t change in energy, [the tune] will just fade into the background and not assist in delivering the correct energy at the right time,” he says.

Crafting a soundtrack with a variety of song lengths and musical peaks and valleys supports the training profile of a work-and-recovery-based class while making the time fly by, adds Arney.

Get Past Your Preferences
Novice instructors often take a lot of time to create a playlist, but only with their own musical preferences in mind, says Hoffman, who lives in Paris and is the author of Going Global: An Expert’s Guide to Working Abroad in the International Fitness Industry (Healthy Learning 2011). But “if a teacher uses music from just one genre (only rock, only dubstep or only club music), he or she alienates students who don’t like that style of music,” notes Glick.

The trick is to strike a balance, choosing music that motivates you as a teacher and pleases the majority of your participants, says Hoffman. “I often ask my students what they think of a certain CD or playlist. If I’m the only who likes it, I’m not going to be successful!”

Listen to the Lyrics
Select songs with upbeat lyrics that are appropriate for your class demographics, says Hoffman. He notes that some lyrics might offend people of different generations, genders, ethnic groups or religious beliefs. When in doubt, leave a song out.

Play the DJ
Imagine standing in front of the volume control and mixing board like a DJ, ready to adjust your tunes at a moment’s notice. With today’s technology, that is possible. Arney recommends using a long iPod connector cord or a wireless Bluetooth® router so you can have your iPod, smartphone or MP3 player in your hand throughout class. “Now you are hands-free all over the room and you have your music in the palm of your hand. You can change volume and tracks seamlessly and make the experience feel even more magical for your students.”

Arney also recommends downloading apps for in-class musical tweaks. Options range from pitch control programs (e.g., Tempo Magic Pro) to apps that select songs from your library based on cadence (e.g., Cruise Control).

Keep It Fresh
Once you have the perfect playlist, how frequently should you use it? It depends on how often participants attend a specific class, says Ken Alan, established fitness instructor, and a lecturer in the department of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton.

“If most participants attend my classes three times weekly, I have three playlists, one for each class,” he explains. “Each playlist has different tracks, and none are repeated. So the most a person will hear a song is once a week.”

Musical Mastery for Personal Trainers
Music is also important outside of the group exercise studio, whether in the background of a weight room or during one-on-one training sessions. Personal trainers who work solely in a studio environment should spend time crafting a motivating musical experience for their customers, says Rick Mayo, owner of North Point Fitness training studio in Atlanta. Mayo, who has licensed his performance facility concept to over 75 gyms worldwide, believes that “music is part of the overall personal training customer’s experience.” He continues: “We facilitate this by simply creating a playlist of 25–30 songs that will play [in our boot camps and large-group training sessions] for an entire month.”

In North Point’s “more coaching-intensive” private or small-group/semiprivate personal training programs, Mayo plays upbeat background music from Pandora, a “personalized Internet radio service.” Trainers lower the volume relative to the boot camp experience to facilitate more intimate and specific communications between instructors and trainees.

It’s a good idea for trainers to invest in their musicality. If you’re new to group instruction and must teach a circuit or boot camp class, “consider attending a course on the use of music in small-group exercise [sessions] to learn and understand how music is composed and to be able to actually ‘use’ the music to enhance the workout,” advises Hoffman.

The Beat Goes On
Science is now proving what instructors have intuited for decades: Clients and participants get a better workout and have more fun when moving to some tunes. “The key role of music in recreational exercise is one of lowering perceptions of exertion and thereby increasing the amount of work performed without the shift toward negative feeling states typically associated with more intense exercise,” summarizes Karageorghis.

“Music is a huge part of how we inspire those we teach and how we stay inspired to teach,” Arney says. What’s important is to have passion for the tracks you choose, says Glick. “Instructors need to be connected to their music so they can pull the students in and get more out of them.” And what better reason is there to get moving to the beat?

The author wishes to thank Costas Karageorghis, PhD, for his assistance in preparing this article.

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