The Psychology of Exercising to Music

3 Minute Read

An HFE tutor with a group of smiling fitness students
An HFE tutor with a group of smiling fitness students

In the past we’ve touched on how music can be used to improve your endurance during a workout, but there are many other benefits to putting your body through its paces while you listen to your ultimate workout mix. Naturally, music is commonplace for something like a spinning or Zumba class, but when you’re on the gym floor or running on the road, it can just be just as critical.

Studies about the effects of music while exercising are actually much older than you may think. In 1911, American investigator Leonard Ayres observed that cyclists pedalled faster when a band was playing, over when it was silent. Today, clear conclusions have emerged about music’s effects on a workout. Psychologists have identified something called ‘rhythm response’, which is essentially how the body reacts to music, whether that’s dancing, running faster or simply tapping your feet.

Most of us have a subconscious instinct to synchronise our movements and expressions to the music were listening to. While tastes, bands and genres may vary from person to person, it’s been suggested that people have an innate preference for rhythms at the two hertz frequency (equivalent to 120 beats per minute).

In 2002, Ghent University in Belgium analysed more than 74,000 popular songs, produced between 1960 and 1990, discovering that 120 bpm was the most prevalent pulse. Some may prefer a higher BPM, particularly when partaking in more intense exercise, but what’s incredibly apparent is the fact music has noticeable effects on the body. What follows are three scientifically-based benefits:


Research has shown that listening to music can distract you from “bodily awareness”. Whether it’s tiredness or a troublesome stitch, the right set of songs could help you push on through, and in fact, increase performance by up to 15%.

Keep pace

As mentioned above, the body’s natural ‘rhythm response’ can greatly aid you in self-paced exercises. Brunel University, in their 2012 study, observed that (music during a workout) “has been shown to enhance affect… improve energy efficiency, and lead to increased work output”.

Elevate your mood

A 2013 study, looking at the “psychological functions of music listening”, found that music has the ability to ‘regulate mood and achieve self-awareness’. Simply put, your favourite gym playlist can give you an opportunity to think about yourself, lift your spirits, and help you dig deep when you’re on the final stretch.

Looking for some inspiration about what to listen to when you’re exercising, why not sample Spotify’s “Ulimate Workout Playlist” below.


Josh Douglas-Walton

Josh Douglas-Walton

Health and Fitness Writer

Josh is passionate about all things health and fitness, and in his spare time he's a keen marathon and ultramarathon runner.

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