I made a rule a long time ago that if I want to watch Pretty Little Liars, I have to be on the bike. At the time, I was trying to find an incentive to start working out in the mornings instead of at night — it makes a huge difference for my mood throughout the day. Well, it worked, since I’m officially a morning workout person, but as it turns out, watching Netflix while working out might be a little too chill because you’re distracted from the intensity. If you’re trying to get the most out of your workout, and actually get better at the movements, the best companion is a good playlist.
“Exercise can often help clear your mind and help you solve problems,” University of Texas professor John Higgins tells Outside. “If you’re now focused on the movie, you may lose that valuable benefit.”
It’s not that watching Netflix makes your workout worthless, it’s that listening to music makes your workout way more intense and efficient. Science has invested a lot of research in workout music in the last decade, and psychologists are starting to understand how music affects the body and mind during a workout. Music distracts people from pain, elevates mood, increases endurance, reduces perceived effort, and may even promote metabolic efficiency. When listening to music, people run farther, bike longer and swim faster than they normally do, and they don’t even realize it.
A review of another study, mentioned in a Scientific American article about music and exercise, described listening to music while working out as “a type of legal performance-enhancing drug.” Basically, music serves as one of the easiest ways to boost performance during exercise.
This may be one of the reasons why many official races, like Iron Man, prohibit the use of any music device or headphones.
In another recent study completed with the help of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Thomas Fritz found that music doesn’t just distract us when physically working hard by making the work seem a lot easier, but music actually reduces the effort. The researchers of the study found that by having athletes listen to music while they worked out, they made their muscles use less energy and become more physiologically effective.
In one of the tests, participants worked out on machines that played music once they were put in motion, making the exercise interactive.
“These findings are a breakthrough because they decisively help to understand the therapeutic power of music,” Fritz said in a news release. “Making music makes physical exertion less exhausting.”
In a study by Liverpool John Moores University, researchers found that according to their trials, “Healthy individuals performing submaximal exercise not only worked harder with faster music but also chose to do so and enjoyed the music more when it was played at a faster tempo.”
My friend Allie ran five or six marathons in college, and I asked her what the key to training long distance is. She told me that she finds a song that has a tempo she can run to, and she listens to that song on repeat to keep her pace in check.
“I still do this, and whenever my friends ask me for training tips, I tell them it’s all about song choice. Try pushing yourself to run to a faster tempo at a shorter distance. Find the song and put it on repeat,” she says now. And she’s right.
In a 2012 study by C. J. Bacon of Sheffield Hallam University, Costas Karageorghis, and their colleagues, participants who cycled in time to music needed 7 percent less oxygen to do the same work as cyclists who didn’t synchronize their movements to background music. When you’re working out, music can function as a metronome, helping you keep your pace and keeping energy expenditure lower.
So, if you’ve been watching Netflix, listening to podcasts, or reading while working out, it might be time to rethink your methods.
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