Workout Wednesday! Turn it Up: The Effects of Music on Exercise Endurance and Efficiency

It’s 7pm and you’ve allotted an hour to go to the gym and work out after a long day.  You’ve planned to do 30 minutes on the stationary bike on the “random hill setting,” twenty minutes of abs on a mat in the empty SRC studio, and ten minutes on the rowing machines before you call it a night.  As you’re biking up the toughest hill of them all, your heart is pounding, your legs are burning, and Journey is telling you not to stop believing through your headphones, so you don’t stop believing and you make it up that darn hill.  After finishing your course on the stationary bike, you start off your ab workout with the choreographed exercise moves to the song “Shots” that you memorized from weeks of Absolution with Colleen last semester, and after 50 mason twists, you’re pretty much feeling like a beast.  A beast who kind of just wants to sprawl out on the floor and stay there, but a beast nonetheless.

Now it’s 7:50pm, and you sit down on the rowing machine.  You’re sweaty, exhausted, and ready to be done—but either your personal pride or the attractive guy rowing away on the machine beside you won’t let you quit without giving it your best ten more minutes. So you adjust the machine, put your headphones in your ears, and put your WALK THE MOON album on shuffle.  And you give that last ten minutes everything you have until your sweaty hands are sensitive against the hand grips, your legs are burning, and you’re starting to feel muscles in your back that you didn’t know existed.  At 8pm you’re done, feeling proud of yourself and simultaneously like Jell-O, and it’s time to go home and take a shower.

Now imagine the same circumstances, but take away the music.  No music while you bike, just the sound of your own ragged breath and the sight of the blinking red dots on the screen as you bike up that massive hill. No music while you do those 50 mason twists, just the silence of the studio and the whir of the other machines nearby. And no music for those last ten minutes of rowing—you just stare at the screen and watch the seconds tick down and you feel the burn.

Everyone has their own individual preferences when it comes to their workout habits, but to most of us, I would guess that the first situation sounds more appealing when it comes to working out on your own for an hour.  Why is this the case? As it turns out, intensive research has shown that listening to music can have significant effects on our endurance during exercise, as well as on the efficiency of our workouts.  Here are a few impressive things that researcher have determined:

Music notes

1.     Music can have a significant effect on respiration and heart rate. Two studies, (Ellis and Brighouse,1952 and Dainow, 1977) showed that respiration rate tends to increase significantly with the addition of music, and then tends to slow back down to the normal rate when the music is turned off. The studies also showed a positive correlation between beats per minute as referring to heart rate with beats per minute as referring to music. In simpler terms, as the tempo of the music increases, the exerciser’s heart rate generally increases as well.  Next time you attend a group fitness class at the SRC, notice how the warm-up song likely has a moderate pace, the majority of the main workout time includes remixed, high intensity music with a fast beat, and the cool-down song is significantly slower and more relaxing. The scientific reason behind this pattern is that heart rate tends to follow the beat of the music, so fitness instructors arrange the music to follow the progress of the workout.

2.     Different types of music or the lack thereof can actually affect physical strength! In a study done by K.A. Pierce in 1981, 33 male undergraduate students and 16 female undergraduate students were randomly assigned to an order in which to listen to stimulative music, sedative music, or silence while performing strength exercises. Surprisingly, the results showed that listening to the sedative music significantly decreased the strength performance of the listeners, while the strength performance of participants listening to stimulative music or silence were not different enough to be statistically significant. However, a more recent study performed in 1996 by Karageorghis, Drew & Terry showed that among 25 college-age males and 25 college-age females, listening to “stimulative, energetic music” resulted in much higher strength scores than the alternatives of relaxing music or “white-noise sounds from a blank cassette.”

3.     Upbeat music can improve exercise performance and endurance.  Dr. Costas Karageorghis, who has researched the effects of music on exercise for 20 years, identifies three ways in which music can dramatically affect exercise performance.  Those three things are “1) the tendency to move in time with synchronous sounds (e.g., tapping your toe in time with music or the beat of a drum); 2) the tendency of music to increase arousal (e.g., the desire to move rather than to sit); and 3) the tendency for music to distract the exerciser from discomfort that might be related to exercise.” The combination of these three things is what helps us to work harder and longer without focusing so much on exhaustion or difficulty during a workout.

Although various studies have yielded various results over the past years of research concerning the subject, it seems clear that music does indeed have a significant effect on the overall workout experience, efficiency, and endurance of people in a variety of situations.  These effects can be either detrimental or highly beneficial, depending on the types of music and the type of exercise.

Next time you’re at the gym or out running on your own, experiment for yourself by starting your workout with a song with a peppy beat, and then try to pick songs that slowly increase in tempo as you increase the intensity of your workout, and then progressively decrease in tempo as you bring your workout to a close.  You may be doing yourself a favor by stimulating your brain to regulate your heart rate in a different way than when you’re not listening to music, and you may be on the path to one of your best workouts, or to achieving your best personal record!

Already love exercising to great music? Come to the SRC on Wednesday, November 6th from 5-9pm for Neon Night: A Party at the SRC.  You can do your regular workout—lifting weights, cardio machines, and the 8pm cardio funk class—all as usual, but a DJ will be playing pumped up music to add some extra energy and help people mix up their workout. Wear neon clothing for the chance to win prizes from the lovely marketing team at the SRC every 15 minutes! So leave your iPod at home just this once and I hope to see you there!

Neon Night

Harmon, N.M. & Kravitz, L. (2007). The effects of music on exercise. IDEA Fitness Journal, 4(8), 72-77.

Anders, M., Foster, C., Pocari, J. (2010) ACE-sponsered Research: Exploring the Effects of Music on Exercise Intensity. Ace Certified News.

Workout Wednesday blog posts are written by UNC Campus Recreation staff members. Each Wednesday we’ll be swapping blog posts with the Tarheel Tone Up blog so that readers can view more diverse post topics that will benefit their health and wellness. Workout Wednesday blog posts can be found both here and on

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