Everyone is busy these days. As a result, popular exercise protocols have been getting shorter and more intense than ever (1). One form of short-duration exercise is high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which involves multiple brief, high-intensity efforts, separated by periods of recovery (2). Research shows that several weeks of HIIT can elicit meaningful physical health benefits that are similar to those of traditional, long-duration aerobic exercise. Importantly, such benefits have been found across populations that are healthy and unhealthy (2–4).
While HIIT is time-efficient and can induce important health benefits, one major drawback is that people may find it to be unpleasant – especially those who are insufficiently active and not meeting recommended physical activity guidelines. The potentially unpleasant nature of HIIT might discourage continued participation. Consequently, researchers have begun to investigate the use of music as a potential strategy to enhance people’s pleasure during HIIT (5). However, the current research evidence is quite limited.
Previously, we investigated the effects of self-selected music during a particularly intense HIIT protocol with adults who were recreationally active (6,7). Yet, our newest study examined the effects of music during HIIT with participants who were insufficiently active, used a more rigorous music selection process, and implemented a low-volume HIIT workout that is more practical for adults who are insufficiently active.
For this project, I teamed up with Drs. Kathleen Martin Ginis and Costas Karageorghis. I relocated to England to complete this study at Brunel University London and to work closer with Professor Karageorghis, who is a world-leading expert in the study of music and exercise.
What did we do?
We carefully studied British music charts and came up with 16 songs that fit our criteria for epoch (within the last 10 years), genre (pop, rock, hip-hop), and tempo (fast: about 132-142bpm). Next, we gathered a panel of British adults to listen to these songs and rate their motivational qualities using the Brunel Music Rating Inventory-3 (8). The three songs with the highest motivational ratings according to each genre were then used for the study:
We then recruited a separate group of 24 insufficiently active adults (12 women, 12 men) and asked them to complete sessions of HIIT under three different conditions: motivational music, podcast control, no-audio control. The ‘one-minute’ HIIT workouts consisted of three, 20-second ‘all-out’ sprints on a stationary bike, separated by two minutes of rest. Each workout lasted only 10 minutes including a short warm-up and cool-down.
What did we find?
Participants experienced elevated heart rate responses and enhanced peak power output in the session with music compared to the podcast and no-audio control sessions. This finding was intriguing considering participants were doing the exact same workout each time. In particular, the elevated heart rate responses may be explained by the concept of entrainment – the innate human tendency to alter the frequency of one’s biological rhythms, such as heart rate, toward that of musical rhythms (9).
Additionally, participants tended to report greater pleasure over the course of the HIIT trial and had significantly higher post-exercise enjoyment scores in the music condition compared to the control conditions. This is meaningful because we know people who participate in exercise because they enjoy it are more likely to continue to participate (10,11). Together, these findings highlight the powerful impact music can have during exercise – both physically and psychologically.
Based on these findings, the application of motivational music during HIIT may be recommended to help individuals who are insufficiently active get more out of their workout physically – and enjoy it more. Therefore, music may be a practical strategy to encourage continued participation in HIIT-type exercise.
Picking Your Next Workout Playlist
If you are interested in trying high-intensity exercise for the first time, you might benefit from listening to music from a genre of your preference and with a fast tempo (about 135–142 bpm) (12). However, it is important to acknowledge that there are a number of complex musical properties (e.g., beat, rhythm, lyrics, vocals, timbre) that collectively make music such a powerful stimulus. For instance, empowering lyrics with a strong motivational message can also be impactful on a personal level. In the song Let’s Go that was used in the current study, the lyrics are as follows: “Let’s go! Make no excuses now, I’m talking here and now…It’s all about where you going no matter where you’ve been. Let’s go!” For many, these lyrics may give you the urge to get up and start moving. It is also important to consider the personal connection or meaning you may place on a particular song. Music that strikes a personal chord may help you maximize the emotional and motivational effect that it has on your workout.
So, the next time you put together your motivational workout playlist, you may want to keep an eye out for up-tempo songs with an inspirational message that can motivate you personally. Music has the power to enhance your high-intensity workout and make it more enjoyable. This may even give you that extra boost to workout again in the future.
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