Illustration by Mark Matcho

For optimizing performance and spurning the burn during exercise, MUSIC is like a broken drum — you can’t beat it.


It’s said (albeit erroneously) that music can soothe the savage beast. If that doesn’t work, not to worry — a great iPod playlist just might help you outrun it instead.

That’s just one upshot from a growing body of research detailing how music aids and abets exercise performance. Turns out, the right tunes can increase your stamina, reduce your oxygen intake and decrease your perception of exertion. Adding songs with inspirational lyrics to the mix helps the musculature to function more ­efficiently. Forgot to charge your MP3 player? No problem: Just humming a tune in your head can yield some beneficial results through something called auditory imagery.

Best of all, studies show that music benefits us 99-­percenters more than elite athletes, says Dr. Costas Karageorghis, the deputy head of the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University in London and an internationally known expert on how music affects exercise. For the last 20 years, Karageorghis — the co-author of the book Inside Sport Psychology — has been compiling scientific evidence behind what casual athletes know anecdotally: A little “Gangnam Style” or “Beat It” serves as a legal performance-enhancing drug that makes pulse-pounding Spin or Zumba classes a little easier (and without rashes or other unpleasant side effects, either).

Good Vibrations
The ancient Romans recognized that a good drumbeat helped the galley oarsmen to keep up the pace. And many modern-day studies have shown that music lights up parts of our brains like the Griswold house at Christmas. But through numerous breakthrough studies, Karageorghis has quantified which music works (and how) — and the results can help you exercise more efficiently. Here are some highlights:
  • During exercise with low and moderate intensity, well-selected music reduces perception of effort by about 12 percent. What’s “well-selected” music? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that old American Bandstand riff, “It’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.” But among other things, it means songs that match the level of exercise intensity in terms of its rhythmic qualities, as well as the age, gender, background and musical preferences of the person exercising.
  • Arbitrarily selected music also reduces perception of effort, but the effect decreases by about a third. So a playlist trumps playing a radio.
  • The optimal tempo of background music across the full range of exercise intensities is 120 to 140 beats per minute. But like seven cups of coffee compared with three, there’s a point of diminishing returns; benefits dissipate at more than 140 beats per minute.
  • Exercise that’s synchronized to a beat extends the duration of performance by about 15 percent. Interestingly enough, during circuit-type exercise or callisthenics, women benefit more than men from this effect.
  • Volume is a factor, too; loud music (within a safe level not exceeding 80 decibels at ear level during exercise) is better for high-­intensity workouts, and vice versa.
  • When you enjoy music communally, as in a fitness class, it increases motivation — and again, especially so for women. Karageorghis believes this is more cultural than biological, opining that during formative years, women are encouraged more to engage in music-­related activities, such as rhythmic gymnastics and dance aerobics.
But as with so many things, from Hot Pockets to The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, there is such a thing as too much of, well, a good thing. To avoid desensitizing yourself to the benefits of, say, “Firework” by Katy Perry, Karageorghis — a circuit-­training ­enthusiast — recommends exercising­ without music every third workout, just to keep the beat benefits going.