It's a sweaty gym studio, the music is booming. You're desperately trying to move along to the beat while peddling like mad. But you find it increasingly impossible to synchronize to the music and end up trailing behind or stopping altogether. While you may blame your coordination, it could actually be the music that is the issue.
Most of us assume it’s empowering to put on music with a fast beat per minute (bpm). Internet listicles of the best workout songs are filled with tracks that reach very high tempos. We are encouraged to listen to 180 bpm for CrossFit and 170 bpm for Zumba—but none of this is based on scientific evidence.
Instead, a wealth of sports psychology tells us that listening to slower music is actually most effective.
The power of music
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the beneficial power of listening to music while exercising. Research published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that music led to a 28 percent increase in enjoyment while another review found it was an effective strategy for managing pain and fatigue.
There are two ways of listening to music during exercise. Asynchronous application is when you put it on in the background but don't consciously match your movements to the beat. This can act as a distraction, and during easy and moderate intensity workouts, it can help you exercise for longer before feeling tired.
Synchronized application is when we use the music as a pulse or metronome. Studies have shown that setting your workout to a beat can make exercise more efficient, and even reduce oxygen intake by up to seven percent.
The limits of synchronized songs
But getting synchronization right is harder than it might sound. During an intense workout the tendency is to put on fast-tempo music with a high bpm. The logic we tell ourselves is that if we can keep moving along with the beat, our workout will be better.
However, research tells us that the harder we're working, the harder it is to process a complex piece of music, particularly if it's fast.
For example, many people try to reach 180 strides per minute during a fast running session because it's thought to be the optimal cadence. This would mean listening to tunes with 180 bpm. "That's not within most people's listening repertoire. It's too fast, and for most people, 180 is quite intense and it's very hard to maintain synchronicity," says sport psychology professor Costas Karageorghis, who has been studying the impact of music on exercise for more than two decades.
Instead Karageorghis recommends running to a half beat. "Find a track that's 90 beats per minute. That will probably be in a lot more people's listening playlist because that's the bpm of a lot of rap and urban music," he says.
The trick is to use the slower beat to match every other movement. For example, while running, you can take a stride cycle—two steps—for every one beat. The same method can be used for all sorts of synchronized activities like spinning, rowing, and even HIIT training.
But just be aware that when you work at very high intensity it may be better to listen to nothing at all. "Research suggests that music has no effect at very, very high intensities," says exercise psychologist Leighton Jones, PhD. "You're simply working too hard, and your body is screaming too loud; it can only listen to that noise from your body."
The asynchronous sweet spot
If you're just looking for background inspiration, there is actually a limited range of effectiveness for tempo with asynchronous music. No matter the intensity of exercise, studies have shown that people are able to reach their “flow state” when listening to music between 120 and 140 bpm. But there are also positive psychological outcomes from music as slow as 100 bpm.
"What we suggest is to avoid anything below 100 bpm when you're working really hard and avoid anything over 140 bpm when you're taking it easy," says Dr. Jones. Apps like Muze can be a handy way to create a playlist at the exact tempo you’re looking for.
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