Four Ways Music Can Make Exercise Less of a Sufferfest

Music has positive effects on physical activity, a new meta-analysis reports.

Posted Jan 10, 2020

A first of its kind meta-analytic review (Terry et al., 2020) pinpoints four ways that listening to music before or during physical activity has positive effects on the mindset and performance of athletes, gymgoers, and outdoor exercise enthusiasts.

Peter Terry and colleagues at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia conducted this analysis in conjunction with Costas Karageorghis and his team in the Department of Life Sciences at Brunel University London.

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Their paper, "Effects of Music in Exercise and Sport: A Meta-Analytic Review," was recently published online ahead of print and will appear in the February 2020 print edition of Psychological Bulletin.

The 139 studies reviewed for this meta-analysis span over a century; they were published between 1911-2017. According to Terry and co-authors, this is the first large-scale summary of scientific literature regarding the "potential benefits and salient mechanisms associated with music listening in exercise and sports contexts."

This review of over a hundred landmark studies reaffirms that listening to music can make exercise seem easier and more enjoyable.

Based on cumulative data from thousands of participants, the meta-analysis also shows that listening to music improves physiological efficiency and has an "ergogenic effect" that enhances physical performance.

Taken together, decades of research corroborates what all of us who rely on listening to music during our daily workouts already know: Music enhances positive feelings while exercising or engaging in sports. Music also makes getting through a vigorous cardio workout seem less intense by improving oxygen utilization.

"Music has the capacity to enhance enjoyment, improve physical performance, reduce perceived exertion, and benefit physiological efficiency across a range of physical activities," the authors said in their significance statement.

Co-author Costas Karageorghis is an internationally-recognized sports psychologist and thought leader regarding music, motivation, and physical performance. In 1999, he co-created The Brunel Music Rating Inventory (BMRI) which is used to assess the motivational qualities of listening to music while working out or playing sports.

Over the past two decades, the BMRI has been updated and redesigned. The most recent version is the Brunel Music Rating inventory-3 (BMRI-3). Last year, Karageorghis was also the co-author of another study (Stork et al., 2019) which found that motivational music can make high-intensity interval training (HIIT) more pleasant. (See "Reluctant to Try HIIT: Music Could Be a Game-Changer")

The latest meta-analysis (2020) on the "Effects of Music in Exercise and Sport" focuses on four categories of potential benefits:

  • psychological responses
  • physiological responses
  • psychophysical responses
  • performance outcomes

Across all four domains, listening to music before or during physical activity had beneficial effects.

Four Ways Music Has Positive Effects in Exercise and Sport

  1. Boosts Positive Affective Valence: Music puts exercisers in a better mood as part of a dissociative strategy. Self-selected playlists trigger positive feelings and the warm glow of happy memories.
  2. Enhances Physical Performance: Music has an ergogenic effect that increases output during repetitive, rhythmic aerobic exercise by synchronizing body movements to the tempo of an upbeat song.
  3. Reduces Perceived Exertion: Music facilitates flow and promotes internal states of motivation that make vigorous exercise seem easier and less arduous. (See "Music Has the Power to Make Us Feel Good")
  4. Optimizes Oxygen Utilization: Music improves physiological efficiency by increasing blood flow and reducing the amount of oxygen intake required to perform at the same intensity without music.

"No one would be surprised that music helps people feel more positive during exercise… [but] the fact that music provided a significant boost to performance would surprise some people," Terry said in a news release. "Faster music (120 beats per minute or more) generally offered bigger benefits than a slow-to-moderate tempo. And working out at the same pace as the music produced slightly greater benefits."

Anecdotally, I can corroborate these science-based findings. This morning at the gym, I was struggling on the treadmill during a fast tempo run. It was a sufferfest. Even with every imaginable song in the universe at my fingertips via Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube—nothing hit the spot. I couldn't find a song that synchronized perfectly with the faster-than-usual cadence of my stride.

Source: Pexels

While I was huffing and puffing on my run, I kept pushing the fast-forward button and advancing to the next shuffle mode track, but every song seemed wrong... Until, by sheer luck, some algorithm in my smartphone finally cued up "Don't Change" by INXS (which is a song I hadn't heard in eons).

This INXS song has an uplifting synthesizer introduction that glides and sails along for a few seconds. But when the drums kicked in at 164 BPM and Michael Hutchence began to sing—BAM! my feet started hitting the treadmill belt in perfect synchrony to the beat. After about 30 seconds of listening to "Don't Change," the same running speed that was pure torture moments earlier, felt like a breeze. The song also triggered vivid flashbacks to the summer of 1983 and made me feel seventeen again, on a psychophysiological level.

James Maddux, who was not involved in the recent (2020) meta-analytic investigation on music and exercise, reviewed and summarized the findings. Maddux is a professor emeritus in the department of psychology and senior scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In a recap of this meta-analysis, he said: 

"The authors offer some good ideas about this: that music can make exercise more enjoyable because it enhances our mood; that music can distract us from the unpleasant sensations of fatigue; that music—even when not exercising—can lead to increased blood flow, which can lead to an increase in the supply of oxygen, which can increase muscle endurance. [And] that running in time to music provides rhythm that can help regulate stride patterns and promote more fluid movement."

Maddux concluded by saying that the findings of this meta-analysis dovetail with his own experience of pairing music and exercise but noted: "All of this depends, of course, on the individual and the specific exercise."

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Peter C. Terry, Costas I. Karageorghis, Michelle L. Curran, Olwenn V. Martin, Renée L. Parsons-Smith. "Effects of Music in Exercise and Sport: A Meta-Analytic Review." Psychological Bulletin (First published online ahead of print: December 5, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/bul0000216

Matthew J. Stork, Costas I. Karageorghis, Kathleen A. Martin Ginis. "Let’s Go: Psychological, Psychophysical, and Physiological Effects of Music During Sprint Interval Exercise." Psychology of Sport and Exercise (First published online: June 12, 2019) DOI: 10.1016/j.psychsport.2019.101547