There is nothing that motivates me to jack up the speed on my treadmill quite like “When the Lights Go Out” by 5IVE. (Judge me, I don’t care.)
I can’t run without music. If I get to the gym and realize I have forgotten my iPod, there is a strong possibility I will nix the workout. I have a carefully maintained workout playlist featuring an overabundance of bad 1990s pop (Mandy Moore, old-school Britney, “Jumpin’ Jumpin’” by Destiny’s Child), some equally bad pop-rap, plenty of T-Swift and every Mika song ever recorded.
So when I came across RunHundred.com – which asserts that songs with a certain amount of beats per minute can enhance a workout, depending on a person’s pace – I got curious. I have always assumed that “good workout songs” are subjective; for example, I highly doubt that an old 5IVE song – possibly one of the 10 worst songs ever written – gets anyone besides me pumped up for a long run.
Could it be, though, that there are certain songs hiding in my workout playlist that have the perfect beats for making me to run faster?
The concept behind RunHundred is that people should try to match their heart rates with songs containing 120-140 beats per minute – a range that most dance and rock songs fall into. As the intensity of a person’s workout increases, so should BPM of the music he is playing.
The site, commandeered by Marie Claire music guru Chris Lawhorn, allows you to sort songs by BPM, so you can find some to pump you up and some to calm you down. You can even buy an app that automatically scans your iPod for songs with a BPM that matches your current workout.
Michael Schmalfeldt, a personal trainer at Wicker Park Fitness in Chicago, used a similar app called Power Hour to train for a marathon, and he found five or six songs that never failed to get his heart pumping. Whenever he was mentally drained, he’d crank up the volume on one of those songs, and “the next thing you know,” he said, “I’d be doing jumping jacks on mile 17.”
Schmalfeldt, who relies on classic rock and hip hop to get motivated, always recommends that his clients listen to music during workouts.
“I know personally that my intensity increases twofold when I have my iPod,” he said. “It helps you stay in the zone and it can help you block out things better.”
But what if you hate most of the songs with high BPM? For example, I don’t care if it has 121 BPM and will make me run 56 miles an hour – I am not a huge fan of Mike Posner’s “Please Don’t Go” and I will never listen to it. Similarly, I’m sure plenty of people would rather slice off their ears than listen to most of the songs on my playlist.
Schmalfeldt said any person can tailor the perfect workout mix to personal tastes.
“Everyone has their genre,” he said. “Some people may find that Beethoven’s symphonies get their heart rates up.”
Audiologist Steven Wolinsky of Chicago is unaware of any research that concretely establishes a correlation between BPM and a better workout, and he concurs that the “right” workout music is a matter of taste.
“Personally, I think I do better when I’m listening to things that I like,” he said. “I think I'm probably just more distracted from other things.”
Distraction, in fact, could be the key reason why many people cannot get through a workout without an iPod or a television, said Andrew Johnston, a corrective holistic exercise kinesiologist in Atlanta. Most gyms these days have cardio rooms littered with TVs, and some even have mini monitors attached to each machine, offering customers a wide array of distractions.
“Walk into just about any gym these days, and you may think you’ve just stepped into the showroom of an electronics store,” he said.
Johnston contends that the goal of a workout is to help people get in tune with their bodies, and studies have shown that most rock music (the Beatles serving as the exception) inhibits the learning process. As a result, music is detrimental to learning a new movement skill.
“That’s one of the most important lessons one can learn in the gym – how to listen for, hear and respond to the critical signals the body is giving us every single second of every single day of our lives,” Johnston said.
Music can also decrease symmetry between the right and left cerebral hemispheres, Johnston added, which decreases strength. So much for hoping that new Black Eyed Peas song will compel you to lift more weight.
The simple truth – for me, at least – is that I need music during a run for the same reason I need it during a long train ride: I get bored without it. If I didn’t have my iPod at the gym, I’d have to just—look out the window and run.
I won’t be leaving 5IVE or Britney at home anytime soon. If my body has something to tell me, it’ll have to wait.
Jessica Isner, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University