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Reluctant to Try HIIT? Music Could Be a Game-Changer

Motivational music can make high-intensity interval training more pleasant.

Matthew Stork is a post-doctoral research fellow in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus in Canada. Stork is an expert on the psychology and psychophysiology of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which consists of short bouts of intense aerobic/anaerobic exercise that are separated by periods of rest/recovery and repeated a specific number of times.

Dr. Matthew Stork is a Post-Doctoral Fellow in the School of Health and Exercise Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Okanagan.
Source: UBC

Stork's primary focus has been on studying "insufficiently active" populations and identifying best practices for motivating people to get more physically active and to stick with it. Previous research (Stork et al., 2015) led by Stork examined the effects of motivational music during HIIT with a cohort of recreationally active people.

Stork's latest paper (2019), "Let's Go: Psychological, Psychophysical, and Physiological Effects of Music During Sprint Interval Exercise," was published online this month in Psychology of Sport and Exercise. For this project Stork relocated to London to team up with Professor Costas Karageorghis at Brunel University London, where the data was collected. Dr. Kathleen Martin Ginis of UBC (who was Stork's Ph.D. supervisor) is the paper's additional co-author.

Karageorghis is world-renowned for his pioneering research on motivational music and physical activity. Two decades ago, he co-created The Brunel Music Rating Inventory (BMRI) for assessing the motivational qualities of music in exercise and sport. (Karageorghis, Terry, and Lane, 1999). The BMRI has been redesigned and updated over the past 20 years; the most recent version is BMRI-3.

Source: Pixabay

For Stork et al.'s recent study on motivational music and interval training, the low-volume HIIT protocol consisted of three 20-second "all-out" sprints followed by a two-minute recovery period under three different listening conditions: (1) with motivational music, (2) podcast control, (3) no-audio control. Each HIIT workout also included a warm-up/cool-down and took a total of 10 minutes.

Although HIIT is a time-efficient way to reap the psychological and physical health benefits associated with physical activity, because HIIT workouts require vigorous exertion, one major drawback is that many people perceive it to be disagreeable and unpleasant.

Thorndike's Law of Effect (1898) states: "Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation." Based on the "Law of Effect," if HIIT workouts are viewed as being unpleasant, there is a greater likelihood that one would avoid completing HIIT again in the future. Consequently, researchers like Matthew Stork and his colleagues have begun to investigate how motivational music can enhance people's pleasure during HIIT and subsequently help encourage future participation.

Until recently, little was known about the nitty-gritty details of using motivational music as part of HIIT protocols explicitly designed for insufficiently active individuals. From a psychological perspective, the primary goal of Stork's most recent study (2019) was to investigate how motivational music influenced the affective valence, enjoyment, and performance of a low-volume HIIT workout for individuals who were deemed to be insufficiently active.

The title of a news release about this research sums up the findings: "Upbeat Music Can Sweeten Tough Exercise: Insufficiently active people might benefit from choosing the right tunes." As the authors explain in the paper's abstract, "The application of music during [interval training] has the potential to enhance feelings of pleasure, improve enjoyment, and elevate the performance of [HIIT] for adults who are insufficiently active, which may ultimately lead to better adherence to this type of exercise."

How Do You Choose the "Right Tunes" for Making HIIT More Pleasurable?

After reading the headline of this news release, the million-dollar question I wanted to ask Dr. Stork was geared towards learning more about how someone can go about "choosing the right tunes" to make a HIIT workout less unpleasant and to share that information with Psychology Today readers.

In an email to Stork I asked, "When classifying an 'upbeat and motivational' song did lyrical content or 'emotional valence' seem to matter or was it more about the beats per minute (bpm) and overall energy of the song?" I was also curious to learn more about how they chose the "right" motivational music used during their recent HIIT experiments with insufficiently active adults.

For the preliminary phase of this experiment, Stork recruited a panel of young British adults to rate the motivational qualities of 16 fast-tempo songs that fit the "epoch" of their generation, meaning that the music was no more than a decade old.

"Music is typically used as a dissociative strategy. This means that it can draw your attention away from the body's physiological responses to exercise such as increased heart rate or sore muscles," Stork said in a recent statement. "But with high-intensity exercise, it seems that music is most effective when it has a fast tempo and is highly motivational."

During our phone conversation, Stork explained to me how he studied the British charts and tried to pick songs in a variety of genres (e.g., pop, rock, and hip-hop) so that study participant could self-select a type of music they gravitate towards prior to doing a HIIT workout in the exercise lab.

As soon as a study participant was about to begin his or her workout, Stork would say, "Oh, by the way, I’ve got my iPod with me today, so I'll put on some music. What type of music do you prefer – pop, rock, or hip-hop?" If someone didn't indicate a preference, the pop music selection was used as a default. Of the 24 (12 male/12 female) study participants, eight selected pop, six selected rock, and two selected hip-hop; eight participants did not indicate musical genre preference.

Of the original 16 songs, the three songs with the highest motivational ratings based on the four-factor structure (association, musicality, cultural impact, and rhythm response) on the BMRI-3 scale were used for the study. The top choice for each genre was (1) "Let’s Go" by Calvin Harris and Ne-Yo for pop music; (2) "Bleed It Out" by Linkin Park for rock music; and (3) "Can’t Hold Us" by Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, and Ray Dalton for hip-hop.

We discussed the role that tempo (in beats per minute [bpm]) plays in making these songs motivational. The introduction of Stork’s paper (2019) points out that, "there is evidence that it is ideal to match high-intensity exercise with fast tempo music (135–140 bpm; Karageorghis, 2017; Karageorghis et al., 2011)." Stork noted that upbeat electronic dance music (EDM) songs tend to have faster tempos of about 128 bpm; but, given the all-out nature of the exercise, the motivational songs used in this study were slightly edited to fall within the range of 135-142 bpm.

While tempo is one musical characteristic that is relatively easy to standardize, Stork emphasized, "There’s an array of complex musical properties that come together to make music the powerful stimulus that it is." Musical components such as beat, rhythm, lyrics, and vocals can also have a meaningful impact on people’s emotional responses to music. For example, Stork highlighted the effect empowering lyrics can have.

Along this line, I said to Stork on the phone that sometimes slow-tempo songs that strike a certain emotional chord wind up being unexpectedly perfect for increasing the "satisfyingness" (Thorndike, 1917) of my HIIT workouts. Stork said that, even if a song has a slower tempo, it can still be an effective motivator on a personal level, especially if the associations that someone has to the lyrics are attached to inspirational visual imagery or strong emotions.

For example, the title of this paper is "Let's Go" which is a "meta" shout-out to the lyrics from the Calvin Harris song used in the study. During our phone conversation, Matt recited some of the lyrics and pointed out their motivational message. As you can see and hear in the video below, Ne-Yo sings, "Let's go! Make no excuses now, I'm talking here and now, I'm talking here and now. Let's go! Your time is running out, I'm talking here and now, I'm talking here and now. It's not about what you've done. It's about what you doing. It's all about where you going. No matter where you've been, let's go!"

I've always loved the message and video for "Let's Go" and was psyched to see the song featured in this study. During our conversation, I also discussed the importance of "epoch" with Matt. I have a hunch that because I graduated high school in 1984 that Top 40 music from my adolescence in the early-80s usually strikes a powerful emotional chord with me. And, I suspect, that most older adults find inspiration in the music from their high school days.

For example, a guilty pleasure from the summer of 1983 that I still love is "Flashdance...What a Feeling." This motivational music is a go-to HIIT song for me. In addition to Giorgio Moroder's upbeat tempo, the cinematography and message of the "underdog protagonist" in the movie (played by Jennifer Beales) prevailing against all odds through blood, sweat, and tears inspires me to push myself harder during HIIT.

Of course, there are some iconic songs like "Eye of the Tiger" from Rocky 3, which transcend generational epoch boundaries because this motivational music (e.g., "We Are the Champions") becomes so ingrained in the public consciousness as workout anthems that it almost becomes cliché. Although this classic Rocky song came out in 1982, and used to be motivational for me, I've heard it way too many times. I can't listen to "Eye of the Tiger" anymore. Along this line, Stork described a "Goldilocks" sweet-spot where a perfect song for HIIT needs to be familiar enough to sing along with but not something that's been overplayed and seems mundane. (See, "Neuroscience-Based Research Explains Why Overplayed Songs Become Tiresome.")

Another example of two very different motivational songs for HIIT that Stork and I shared came from athletic advertising campaigns. Surprisingly, my choice completely breaks the mold of a song needing to be "uptempo" in order to be good for HIIT because it's very slow bpm. Nevertheless, sometimes I like to watch the YouTube clip below on my iPhone while I'm doing interval training on stationary equipment at the gym. This clip is from the "Rule Yourself" Under Armour ad campaign that aired just before Michael Phelps made his big comeback at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

In an email after our conversation, Matt sent me a link to the video from the "My Better Is Better" Nike ad campaign that features the likes of superstars Steve Nash and Kevin Durant training intensively that never fails to inspire him. The imagery and motivational music used in this commercial became a staple for Stork's high-intensity workouts. Maybe this song will be inspiring for you during HIIT, too?

As you can see from these various examples, choosing the "right tunes" to make your HIIT workouts more pleasurable is extremely personal and individualized. These songs will also evolve over time, especially if you overplay one of your go-to anthems.

Once you begin to play around with songs that make you feel good during your HIIT workouts, keep your antennae up for other uptempo songs that sound like they'd be motivational during HIIT. But remember, if a song has a powerful motivational message and the lyrics strike a deep, inspirational chord—that song could be just the "right tune" to make your HIIT workouts more pleasant and enjoyable, even if it has a slower tempo.

DISCLAIMER: Please use common sense and consult with your primary care physician before beginning any new physical activity or kickstarting a vigorous exercise regimen that includes HIIT—especially if you have not done any high-intensity physical activity recently.


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

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