Why You Should Listen to Music When You Work Out

Workout Music

Story at-a-glance -

  • A simple high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout involves short bursts of concentrated effort for 20 to 30 seconds, a breather, then repeated, intense exercise modules for three to 10 minutes
  • All-out effort in HIIT may be accomplished with more enthusiasm if participants listen to motivating music, new research says
  • Twelve weeks of HIIT improved heart and metabolic measurements as much as conventional endurance training in sedentary men, despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment
  • The ultimate purpose is to stay in shape, but anything that motivates and makes the journey more enjoyable, like music, for instance, can only be a positive

By Dr. Mercola

High-intensity interval training (HIIT) has been in the forefront of fitness trends for the last handful of years, and far from being a fad that fizzled, it's still considered one of the most effective ways to get into tip-top shape quicker than other methods.

For those who once felt they didn't have time to exercise, this technique has been a life saver — maybe in more ways than one. The beauty of HIIT is that the time you spend exercising isn't the issue; it's the degree of intensity.

Even short workout bursts of concentrated effort for 20 to 30 seconds, followed by a leisurely pace for two minutes, then repeating for a total of 10 minutes, three times a week, is challenging. But it means you may be able to forego "the dreaded 150-minute weekly total."

That number is recommended by the American Heart Association, which recommends a minimum 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, per week.1

Whether you're doing pushups, lunges, riding a bike or any of the dozens of other focused workouts, HIIT is effective. What makes it better, researchers from Columbia University found, is music.

Music May Make Your Workout Easier, Studies Show

Twenty men and women in their early 20s (HIIT novices) were asked to participate in an experiment, starting with two training sessions. They then completed an "acute" session of sprint interval workouts on stationary bikes — four to six half-minute "all out" stints of intensity punctuated by four minutes of rest in between.

A week later, they followed the same drill, with one difference: One of those workouts was performed in silence, while the other was done while listening to music. According to a Time article:

"'After each session and again after a final follow-up meeting, the participants were asked to rank the workouts in terms of how enjoyable, beneficial, pleasant, painful, and valuable they found them to be.

They were also asked how likely it was that they would do a similar workout three times a week going forward.'

Overall, the exercisers rated their session with music as more positive than their session without … For busy people who may be reluctant to try HIIT for the first time, this research tells us that they can actually enjoy it, and they may be more likely to participate in HIIT again if they try it with music."2

More importantly, the researchers concluded that listening to music during your workout might be the boost you need to tackle the next level of fitness, adopt a more varied regimen of routines and stay focused longer.

The study participants chose their own music to listen to, and their selections varied widely. However, for the exercises required, they picked songs with a fast pace to keep them in sync. Interestingly, upbeat music does tend to encourage more speed, studies indicate.

The ultimate purpose is to stay in shape, but anything that motivates and makes the journey more enjoyable can only be positive.

HIIT: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Making workouts easier can lead to more solid commitment to staying in shape, says Kathleen Martin Ginis, Ph.D., professor of health and exercise sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC), in Time.

"There has been a lot of discussion in the exercise and public policy worlds about how we can get people off the couch and meeting their minimum exercise requirements."3

The brief, give-it-all-you've-got effort this fitness approach calls for is succinctly described in The Huffington Post:

"HIIT, or high-intensity interval training, is a training technique in which you give all-out, [100] percent effort through quick, intense bursts of exercise, followed by short, sometimes active, recovery periods. This type of training gets and keeps your heart rate up and burns more fat in less time."4

Plus, you can get a meaningful workout accomplished in a handful of minutes a few times a week. Another study tested sprint interval training (SIT) sessions compared to other exercise methods, after which scientists concluded:

"Twelve weeks of brief intense interval exercise improved indices of cardiometabolic health to the same extent as traditional endurance training in sedentary men, despite a five-fold lower exercise volume and time commitment …

In summary, we report that a SIT protocol involving [three] minutes of intense intermittent exercise per week, within a total time commitment of 30 minutes, is as effective as 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity continuous training for increasing insulin sensitivity, cardiorespiratory fitness and skeletal muscle mitochondrial content in previously inactive men."5

HIIT: What It Can Do for You

Benefits from HIIT are numerous, not the least of which is its convenience, because it doesn't require a bunch (or any) exercise equipment and can be done anywhere, from your patio to a park to a hotel room.

Needing only your body weight to be effective, workouts increase your heart rate for optimum muscle building and fat burning that lasts for hours afterward, which simultaneously speeds up your metabolism and burns calories.

BBC News noted that one reason for its effectiveness is that it employs a far greater percentage of your muscle tissue in comparison with simple aerobic exercise.6 Science News reported that HIIT can increase your cardiovascular fitness, promote healthy blood glucose levels and increase endurance.

HIIT is appropriate for all ages and fitness levels but start at your own pace before gradually increasing the intensity. You'll probably find that some routines are a good fit and enjoyable, while others may make you want to quit.

Keep working at it until you find the right ones. In fact, one of the study authors told Time that's one of the benefits of HIIT:

"Relative intensities … can account for a range of fitness levels and can be modified in many ways … Don't be afraid to start off with a protocol consisting of [four] or [five] work bouts and eventually work your way up to 10 bouts over a few weeks. There's no need to push yourself too hard or too fast."7

A High-Intensity Interval Training Workout Option

Say you have an important meeting and you're a little stressed. This super-quick workout lasts only five minutes but benefits your body by waking up your endorphins, getting your blood flowing and jump-starting the stress-reducing chemicals in your brain. It's designed to help you feel calmer and more prepared to face the day ahead.

This series of exercises from Health8 helps you move seamlessly from one set to the next, with 10-second breaths and shaking your arms to loosen up between each module. Once it becomes routine, add music for optimal motivation.

  • Jump, Hop and Raise Your Knees: Start by jumping with both feet spread shoulder width apart, lifting knees alternately inward to your chest with each hop. Swing your arms naturally to the knee that comes in toward your chest. Repeat this for 20 seconds, take a 10-second break and repeat a total of three times.
  • Push Back Pushups: Not letting up on the momentum, drop to the floor in a pushup position, toes bent and almost shoulder width apart. Bend your knees (without lowering them to the floor), push your bottom back toward your heels and straighten your arms, then push forward again to the plank position.

Repeat for 20 seconds, taking a 10-second break and repeating for 20 seconds a total of three times.

High Knees: Continuing to the next series, jog in place rapidly, pulling your knees to waist height, swinging your arms in a jogging motion and counting out your 20 seconds, repeating with 10 second intervals to catch your breath.

Beast Crawl: Drop to the floor, almost on all fours, but with your knees hovering off the ground. Toes bent on the floor, come forward with one step, and then move back to your starting position, as if you're going to step forward, then change your mind.

Alternate this movement with each leg, making sure your knees stay off the ground. Again, repeat for 20 seconds, take a 10-second break and repeat a total of three times.

Lateral Hops: Jumping from side to side with your feet together, let your arms swing naturally. Count down from 20, take a 10-second break, and repeat for 20 seconds.

Workout Tunes Should Match Your Workouts

Some wonder if listening to music while working out might be distracting and possibly flatten the intensity and determination necessary to get through your regimen with excellence and efficiency. But Alice Rickard, a high-intensity exercise instructor at 1Rebel studios in London told The Telegraph:

"When it comes to demanding resistance exercises, I would have to agree, but there are times, when running or cycling, when a heavy beat or guitar solo can make all the difference … I've known people to hit personal bests on sprint times that they never dreamt of by using music."9

It's best to keep the energy up and the sound mixed. That said, a few recommended music picks that you can modify, depending on the beat you emphasize and the type of workout you choose, might be:

Orinoco Flow (Enya)

Lay It All On Me (Rudimental)

Sugar (Maroon 5)

Viva La Vida (Coldplay)

Natural Mystic (Bob Marley)

Story of My Life (One Direction)

Workout Music Motivation, shown in the video below, is a good music compilation for any type of exercise, including HIIT, giving you an unbroken 1.5 hours of motivating rhythms. There are many other options online to suit different musical tastes as well.

Get Ready to Work Out

Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., a psychology researcher at Brunel University, says in the Telegraph:

"When you are exercising at low to moderate intensity, music can reduce your idea of how hard you have to work. Hearing music you associate with peak performance will fire areas of the brain that deal with your long-term memory. It can inspire you and help you shift up a gear."10

Here are several points to ponder, inspired by the profound observations of Nerd Fitness11 on the subject of HIIT compared to cardio, an alternate type of exercise described as:

"Pretty much anything with relative low intensity that you can do for a prolonged period of time that elevates your heart rate. Regular aerobics, going for a [3]-mile jog, running on a treadmill for an hour, using the elliptical for twenty minutes, etc."12

  • If you want to keep your workouts as short as possible and enjoy pushing your limits, then go for HIIT. Stick to a healthy schedule.
  • The majority of studies do in fact conclude that HIIT is equal to or better than longer cardio workouts for improving overall health and fitness.
  • The most important exercise continues to be the one that you will actually do, and do safely.
  • Keep in mind that whatever works for you and your life should not be ignored.
  • The biggest caloric gains and losses ultimately happen in the kitchen. Nothing can make up for EBOC: Excess Brunching Over Coffee/Champagne. You can't outrun your fork.
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