By Josie Rubio

Music can be your most motivating friend for workouts. But choose wisely.

Music can be your most motivating friend for workouts. But choose wisely.

Gyms and group-fitness classes are known for an inescapable bass beat (thump, thump, thump) and top-40 tunes played at a deafening volume (think:Rocky III’s “Eye of the Tiger” montage). Music and fitness, in fact, go hand-in-sweaty-hand.

And for good reason: Music is more than just a way to distract you from the boredom (or pain) of a workout. Two recent news items confirm that's it's actually very important to use music -- and find the right tunes -- if you want to stay motivated.

First, the science: A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that music not only makes working out more enjoyable, it also improves fitness performance. Twenty moderately active adults completed two sessions of sprint interval training—one with no music at all and one with music they chose. When participants worked out to music they enjoyed training more. Even better, the researchers said the exercisers performed better when they had music to keep them going.

This wouldn't come as a surprise to trainers and fitness experts—or anyone who has listened to a favorite playlist when energy is flagging. “The music can make or break the [workout] experience,” says Grace Desimone, national director of group fitness at Plus One Health Management in New York City, adding that other studies have also shown that music can improve exercise performance and endurance. “Ideally, the music should boost the energy of the class and provide a tailwind to keep participants motivated," she says.

Not just any music will do, though. You have to choose the songs and genres that resonate most with you. This week’s viral trend, Health Goth, is associated with the goth subculture, a group not always linked to athletic types. In case you missed the social media posts and headlines from publications ranging from Alternative Press to Marie Claire, this fitness trend seems to be mainly comprised of working out while wearing black and listening to goth and industrial music. The tenets outlined on are pretty much what most sites will tell you about working out effectively and eating right for health. Probably it will come as no surprise to hear that Johnny Love, the Chicago-area DJ who founded, isn’t a fan of the top-40 music played at most gyms; he says it makes him “stop mid-lift.” His solution is simple: working out to his own playlist. “I listen to goth, industrial, metal, punk, and hard techno while I’m working out,” he says.

While you can easily load your iPod with your favorite music—provided it has a motivating beat—it can be a challenge to find music that pleases everyone in a group fitness class. Desimone says that she welcomes feedback on the music selections played at Plus One classes. “Music in an exercise class is like food at a restaurant—some folks love it, others dislike it,” she says. “That’s why it’s important to have a buffet of choices and big ears to listen to what participants have a musical appetite for. We often have participants make suggestions for songs or vote on a style of music that will be used at a later date.” 

Aside from a providing an energy boost for a class or people in a gym, trainers have to make sure that the lyrics and music appeal to a wide variety of people. When Jess Horton, an ACE-certified personal trainer at Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, puts together a class or personal training playlist, she says it’s important to “be aware of your demographic and be sure to include multi-generational music. Death metal or even hardcore rap may be fine for a particular group, but not for another.” Horton adds that she tries to stay up-to-date on the latest chart-toppers. “Clients love being on the forefront of the latest music hits just as they do with the latest fitness moves,” she says.

That said, Horton doesn’t recommend music for clients training for a speed goal. “While music can motivate many, and even distract some gym-dwellers from the dreaded task at hand, it may have the opposite effect for an elite athlete or competitor,” she says. “With many of my running clients, I have challenged them to go sans music for a speed workout or race. The results are impressive when seconds or minutes fly off the clock. If the music has a beat that's too fast, it may be difficult for them to maintain such a quick tempo. If the music is too sluggish, the beat may slow them down and leave them short of attaining that goal time.”

She still recommends music as a powerful motivational tool for most workouts, though. “Music can transport us back to a memory in an instant,” Horton says. “An old song from high-school days can put us right back on the practice fields, when perhaps we were in better shape. A summer hit can fast forward you to an upcoming vacation that you may be shedding for.” As for her own workouts, Horton says she definitely gears up for weekend morning races or long runs with music. “My house is jamming even before the sun is up with beats from the Jackson 5, Pitbull, or Fleetwood Mac,” she says. “‘Eye of the Tiger’ is a trusty go-to power song where I can channel my inner Rocky.

Whether it’s Pitbull or Skinny Puppy, we say go with whatever gets you moving! What’s your go-to motivational workout song?


Josie Rubio is a contributing writer to Based in Brooklyn, Josie is a veteran  health, nutrition, and fitness writer and editor for national magazines and leading websites.


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