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Music to Motivate Exercise

Can music actually improve exercise? Research helps explain.

Image courtesy of Nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos dot net
Source: Image courtesy of Nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos dot net

I have been spinning now for almost a year. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it when I first started—after all, it simply involves riding a stationary bike in a small, dark room with a group of people while an instructor yells out directions. How fun could that be?

Turns out, I love it. First of all, physical activity-wise, I sweat. Every time. I for sure work harder in that class than if I were doing solo cardio exercise.

Secondly, I love the music playlists that blare over the sound system. More specifically, I’m particularly fascinated by the different ways in which I respond to the music blaring over the sound system.

The music is at times motivating. This occurs in particular when it’s a song I know (and like) with a strong, steady, upbeat tempo and loud dynamic level. This type of music pumps me up. It helps me push harder through sitting sprints, standing sprints, and breakaways (my instructor’s terms…not sure if these translate to other spinning experiences?).

Other times, I find the music distracts me from the physical exertion of spinning. In these instances, I get lost in the song itself as my body briefly drifts into autopilot. Sometimes I find myself singing the song (internally, of course) or the song sparks a memory or triggers a thought on how I can use it clinically. In any case, I mentally drift away from the spinning itself for a bit.

Perhaps my favorite response, though, is when I sync the cadence of my pedaling to the beat of the song. In these instances songs have to be a certain tempo that compliments the intensity of the resistance. For example, songs around 120 bpm work well for medium resistance, whereas slower-tempoed songs work well when pedaling at a higher resistance.

What I really like, though—and this is admittedly quite nerdy—is when we do two count jumps (i.e., we alternate every two beats between sitting and standing) and the resistance and tempo match just enough for me to complete 2.5 pedal cycles in 2 beats during the sitting phase. In other words, I sync exactly to the beat during two counts of standing, but speed up my cadence slightly when sitting and complete five spins instead of four. In musical speak, it’s like I’m pedaling in 5/4 time during the sitting portion of the exercise.

Personal anecdotes aside, there is research on this kind of experience. For example, Laukka and Quick asked elite athletes a series of closed- and open-ended questions to explore their emotional and motivational uses of music during physical activity. These athletes reported listening to (and benefiting from) music when training and preparing for events. In general, they chose music characterized as upbeat, intense, conventional, energetic, and rhythmic, and reported feeling positively valenced emotions from the music, which they felt helped in their sporting activities. In other words, they (like me) found the music to be motivating, and listened to music of a certain style to pump them up during training and pre-event preparations.

Motivation may also play a role during synchronization. Ramji and colleagues explored the role of music as an enhancer (or not) during synchronous and asynchronous running. One finding that emerged is that the runners did not in fact synchronize exactly to the beat of the songs, nor was there an influence of mood on running performance (in this case, unlike in the previous study, participants did not self-select the songs, which may account for the lack of a mood change). The researchers speculated that perhaps music was motivating not due to the effect of a mood change, per se, but to the presence of a strong beat and the overall increase in arousal level.

However, it may be that motivation is just one small piece of the puzzle, just one way in which music enhances physical activity. Imogen Clark and colleagues conducted a review of articles and books exploring how music modulates physical activity. In their synthesis they state that:

“…music listening stimulates multiple subcortical and cortical responses during exercise. These cognitive processes give rise to two broadly classified influences, physiological arousal and subjective experience, which are hypothesized as having a positive impact on behavioral response with increased exercise participation and adherence.” (pg. 98).

In lay terms, listening to music activates our brain, eliciting two types of responses: a physical response and a mood-based response. This does not occur in an either/or fashion…both have a role. These two responses, in turn, influence our behavior during exercise in such a way that it improves our participation and adherence.

This indeed reflects my experience of the music-induced mood enhancement (a mood-based response) and beat entrainment (a physical response) that occurs during spinning. And it may also account for my adherence, and the regular decision to wake up pre-dawn to ride a stationary bike in a small, dark room with a group of people while an instructor yells out directions.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for regular updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Clark, I. N., Baker, F. A., & Taylor, N. F. (2016). The modulating effects of music listening on health-related exercise and physical activity in adults: A systematic review and narrative synthesis. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 25(1), 76-104. doi:10.1080/08098131.2015.1008558

Laukka, P., & Quick, L. (2011). Emotional and motivational uses of music in sports and exercise: A questionnaire study among athletes. Psychology of Music, 41(2), 198-215. doi:10.1177/0305735611422507

Ramji, R., Aasa, U., Paulin, J., & Madison, G. (2016). Musical information increases physical performance for synchronous but not asynchronous running. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 984-995. doi:10.1177/0305735615603239