Maximizing Your Workout With The Right Tunes Gym junkies can tell you the right routine and equipment is important — and so is the right music. Sports psychologist Costas Karageorghis says the tempo and pacing of the music you listen to while working out can have a big effect on athletic performance.
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Maximizing Your Workout With The Right Tunes

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Maximizing Your Workout With The Right Tunes

Maximizing Your Workout With The Right Tunes

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NEAL CONAN, host: Anyone who exercises regularly can tell you that the right gear, the right workout routine and the right equipment is important, and that includes the right music. Studies show that music can improve results, and certain songs are more effective in some situations than others. For example, on the last leg of a long run, you might want to power through listening to this.


KANYE WEST: (Singing) Now, that don't kill me can only make me stronger. I need you to hurry up now because I can't wait much longer. I know...

CONAN: "Stronger" by Kanye West. The tempo and pacing of the music you listen to can have a big effect on performance. So what's on your workout playlist and why? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Costas Karageorghis is the deputy head of research at the School of Sport and Education at Brunel University in West London. He and Peter Terry co-wrote the book "Inside Sports Psychology." And we should point out he's done work for Nike, Sony and other companies and consulted with the music industry on several CDs of workout music. And, Professor Karageorghis, nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. COSTAS KARAGEORGHIS: A pleasure to be on the program.

CONAN: So why is Kanye West's "Stronger" good workout music?

KARAGEORGHIS: Well, that track in particular provides lyrical affirmations. It lifts the spirit, lifts the mood and gets people to push just that little bit harder.

CONAN: So it's in part inspiration. "Stronger" is going to make you maybe feel a little stronger.

KARAGEORGHIS: Absolutely. It's all in the lyrics in that particular number, not so much the tempo as it's a relatively slow tempo, although much of our research has investigated the influence of tempo and we know that to be a very important variable also when selecting music.

CONAN: So the right tempo is that different for different periods of workout, warm-up or cool-down, for example?

KARAGEORGHIS: Absolutely. Ideally, the tempo should contour your heart rate when you're working out. We've spent the last maybe four or five years looking specifically at the relationship between exercise heart rates and preference for music tempo. And what this research have shown us is that when the music is playing in the background, so you're not synchronizing your movements to it, there's a very narrow range of preferred tempi during exercises, only between about 125 to 140 beats per minute.

Whereas previously, it was thought that the range of preferred tempi spanned about 90 to 160 beats per minute. So research is helping us to get wise about how to optimize people's responses to music and how to make the exercise experience more pleasurable.

CONAN: And how do you figure out how much benefit music can be?

KARAGEORGHIS: Well, there are a huge number of measures that we use. Some of the easiest to understand, I guess, are the self-report measures. With these, we ask participants how they feel on the scale from displeasure to pleasure. We assess their ratings of perceived exertion. This is how hard they feel that they're working. Generally, background music will reduce perceptions of effort by about 10 percent. We assess their motivation, how motivated they feel at any given time. We assess their work output, whether they work out harder, whether they work out longer.

We look at other physiological markers, such as heart rate, such as breathing rate, such as galvanic skin response, which is how people sweat in response to music. And lately, we've even gone as far as looking at neurophysiological responses to music, and that's how the brain itself responds to musical stimuli. And using live images of the brain, we're able to track precisely which regions of the brain different pieces of music influence. And we can draw inferences from that as to how we can affect people physically. So that's a really interesting new line of research that we have embarked on.

CONAN: Interesting. I read a quote by Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who wrote a book, of course, called "Musicophilia." And he said, neurologically, it makes no difference if you're listening to music or imagining it. So if you're thinking about a tune, it shouldn't make any difference as to whether you're actually hearing it.

KARAGEORGHIS: Well, when I work with athletes, auditory imagery is actually very important. You know that nowadays athletes are not allowed to use music in the competitive arena, so what I've done with a number of track and field athletes, for example, is that I get them to imagine a particular piece of music during an event, and this has a pacing function so they synchronize movements to the tempo of the music. And this has an ergogenic or a work-enhancing effect. So I'm glad that you've raised that, because imaging music is often just as effective as listening to it proper, in terms of neurological responses.

CONAN: And I can understand the rhythm being very important if you're a walker or a runner. Does it make any difference if you're lifting weights?

KARAGEORGHIS: I would say less so. Rhythmic music is more important when you're engaged in repetitive, long-duration activities such as cross-country skiing or cycle ergometry or jogging. When you're engaged in circuit training or weight training, the movements are a little bit more irregular.

Nonetheless, what I said earlier about the optimal tempo being between about 125 and 140 beats per minute, holds for those types of activities. So if you think of tunes like "I Like the Way You Move" by Bodyrockers, which has a tempo of 128, or "I See You Baby" by Groove Armada; that also has a tempo of 128, or "Mercy" by Duffy at 130 - all of these tunes are ideal for that sort of activity.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners involved in the conversation. We'd like to hear what you have on your mix tape or your mix download - iPod. Give us a call, 800 - and why, 800-989-8255. Email, We'll start with Tim and Tim is with us from Williamsburg in Virginia.

TIM (Caller): Good afternoon. It's great to be on the show.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

TIM: Yes. For cardio days, I have something like "Trance Around the World" with Above & Beyond, Bassnectar, Groove Armada, that's all good stuff, as was mentioned before. But on resistance and - or weightlifting days, something with heavier rocking full-out beats like Volbeat or something heavy - not necessarily heavy metal, like face-melting stuff, but like some really hard-driving stuff. I'm sure somebody there can find some Volbeat for you to put on between segments.


CONAN: I'm sure we can find it. Yeah.

TIM: Volbeat.

CONAN: And why do you think it has that effect?

TIM: Really focus, stirs - I guess, what I would say is a feeling of determination, you know, especially, like, on the weightlifting days. And, you know, you got to be careful at the same time and not to over-exert yourself because that will lead to injury. As has happened to me. You know, the music gets you going in the places your body can't go.

CONAN: Hmm. So then you over-exert so...

TIM: Yes, that's true. So I had to throw that out there just so people can get that in their - it's actually an Unpod, it's a Phillips brand, so I call it an Unpod. But that's what keeps me going.

CONAN: All right, Tim. Thanks very much for the call. And, Costas Karageorghis, does the - do his choices seemed to make sense to you?

KARAGEORGHIS: Tim's choices make absolute sense to me. The more pop or trance-like tracks will provide the regular metronomic pulsation that is just ideal for a cardio workout. And the rock tracks that Tim mentioned are ideal in terms of, perhaps, raising aggression slightly, raising arousal slightly, which entails the optimal mindset for a weights workout. So what Tim is saying is actually borne out in the sort of research that we've done.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Molly(ph), and Molly is with us from San Antonio.

MOLLY (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks. What do you listen to and why?

MOLLY: I like to listen to a lot of songs by M.I.A. It's like a very high speed, it's like conducive to jogging or sprinting.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MOLLY: So I just put it on, like, at the end of my run so that I - I'm not, I guess, seduced into walking, because that's my big problem. If I keep this music going, it stops me from walking and braking and stuff. And for some reason, I guess I wanted to ask who you have on dubstep, and I don't know why, because it's very slow sometimes and fast at other times. But it makes me feel like I'm in a movie, I guess. And I just want to - I want to be, like, in the action movie adventure role, but I'm not sure why dubstep works for me like that.

CONAN: Professor Karagorgeous(ph) - Karageorghis, why might it work?

KARAGEORGHIS: The reason it works is that Molly is possibly feeling a double beat, which makes it very easy for her to synchronize her movements. The strong evidence that comes from our own body of research, that the use of synchronous music leads to greater endurance and movement efficiency, so this reflected in what Molly said.

The same phenomenon, I guess, underlies exercise-to-music classes, in which the music serves as a metronome or a rhythmical cue. And our latest research has shown that when you synchronize your stride rate to music, it results in approximately a seven percent increase in efficiency. So it also make you a more efficient runner. There are lots of reasons to try synchronize your stride rate to a musical tempo. And I would fully endorse Molly's choices.

CONAN: Hmm. Molly, thanks very much for the call.

MOLLY: Thanks.

CONAN: And it was interesting, there was a graphic that you did that provides this in translation for those who may be more familiar with classical tempo. Largo, if you're resting, andante if you're walking, allegro for training and presto for high-intensity training.

KARAGEORGHIS: That's right. That was a piece that appeared in National Geographic recently. The key thing, I think, is you're going to use music synchronously, I often advise people to film themselves in different modalities of exercise, let's say a cardio workout or weight training-type workout or a mobility-type workout, and then to look at the footage and try to find pieces of music from your own music library that fit the rate of movement. But specifically, I often get people to find music that is one or two beats per minute above their comfort zone so it gives them a little bit of a jolt and that seems to work best in terms of increasing people's work output.

CONAN: We're talking with Costa(ph) Karageorghis, excuse me.

KARAGEORGHIS: Costas Karageorghis.

CONAN: Karageorghis, we'll get that right sooner or later. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can go next to Rob, and Rob is with us from Carrboro in North Carolina.

ROB (Caller): Hi. How are you doing?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

ROB: Yeah. I like to listen to a whole slew of music but, I guess, for doing a high-intensity interval or picking up the pace a little bit, I'll listen to Archers of Loaf, "Web in Front" or "White Trash Heroes."

CONAN: And how would you characterize those groups, with which, I'm not familiar?

ROB: Yeah. Archers of Loaf, it's a Chapel Hill band, kind of good rock and roll, solid beat, post-punk type band.

CONAN: And post-punk - there's a lot of punk music, sort of, changes rhythm and stops and starts.

ROB: "Web in Front," it's a short little interval. It's really good for just, like, maintaining that quick pace for about two minutes.

CONAN: All right. Thanks...

ROB: And for longer runs, I'll listen to Bunny Wailer and do a lot of reggae.

CONAN: Thank I can understand.


CONAN: That, I've heard of. And, Professor, what he's talking about, music that stops and starts or changes tempo, that might be counterproductive, don't you think?

KARAGEORGHIS: Well, music that stops and starts, or music with a heavily syncopated rhythm is often not so good. Unless you grew up on that sort of music, of course. What's interesting, Neal, in terms of what's coming through and reflected in the sort of work that we've done, is that our male callers are going for rock, and rock and roll selections, female caller more for pop selections. And that is truly reflected in the survey work that we've done.

The other thing in terms of the gender differences, is that men often select music because they identify with a particular subculture. And it's a huge part of their impression management and the image that they try to exude, whereas women, on the whole, tend to use music much more for emotional reasons. And I would say that would be one of the main differences between the musical choices of men and women.

CONAN: Here - let's read some emails. This is from John in Traverse City, Michigan. At age 62, I was grateful to have my university's athletic fitness center's weight room for lunch break workouts. The students got a real bang out of some of us fit old birds pumping iron. But I stopped using the center when I realized I was memorizing the lyrics to a song that went, it's getting hot in here so take off all your clothes. I guess I'm too old-fashioned and glad of it.

From Lee(ph): Creedence's "The Midnight Special" gets me up the hill running every time. Fogerty sings it brilliantly.

Sarah(ph) in Elgin, Illinois: The most important thing to me is variety. I like classical, religious rock, easy listening and rap all mixed up; that keeps me from getting bored.

Chris(ph) in Dayton, Ohio: Celia Cruz, nothing like fun Latin music to keep me going.

And we have a tweet from David Bernstein(ph): Nothing beats "Gonna Fly Now" by Bill Conti.


CONAN: And, Professor Karageorghis, that has been described by some as the perfect workout song.

KARAGEORGHIS: I think it's absolutely perfect when you're priming yourself and getting ready psychologically for a workout. The reason that tracks like that are particularly effective has to do with something known as extramusical association. Because we associate the music with Rocky Balboa's Herculean feats and his training montage and his striving to overcome adversity, it almost brings out the hero in us.

CONAN: Almost brings out the hero in us. Let's see if we can get one more caller in. And let's go to - this is Kim and Kim with us from Wichita.

KIM (Caller): Hi. I love your show. Thanks for talking to me.

CONAN: Thanks for calling.

KIM: I used to run a lot, and two of my favorite running songs are old, maybe that's because I'm old. I'm 54. But T-Rex's "20th Century Boy," a very high-impact, high-energy song, and Iggy Pop's "Lust For Life." I can't run anymore, but I still do those on the treadmill at a very fast walk. And I swim laps, which, sometimes, is kind of boring, like you'd rather chew foil than do that.


KIM: And so, I have a SwiMP3 player that I have music on. And I like to swim to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." So, I like a wide variety, but those are some of my faves.

CONAN: All right, Kim. Thanks very much for the recommendations. We appreciate it.

KIM: Uh-huh. Yeah.

CONAN: And this final email from John in Akron. I don't listen to music. I listen to TALK OF THE NATION, ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, FRESH AIR and other NPR shows. If I hear music, it allows my mind to start coming up with all sorts of half-baked ideas that I want to inflict on my fifth-grade students, like getting "Paul Revere's Midnight Ride" to a rap beat.

In any case, Professor Karageorghis, thank you very much for your time today.

KARAGEORGHIS: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Costas Karageorghis is deputy head of research at the school of sports and education at Brunel University in West London. He's co-author of "Inside Sport Psychology" and he has also done work for Nike, Sony and other companies and consulted with the music industry on music CDs. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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