Is Exercising While Listening to Music Really Better?

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The research on listening to music while exercising is a bit confusing if you’ve ever taken the time to wade through it. Even while googling “exercise while listening to music” for an image, I saw multiple posters with sayings like “Listening to music while exercising can increase endurance by 15%” or “Music blocks out noise, enabling better focus during exercise.”

In addition, walk into any gym and you’re bound to find at least half of the members plugged into some device, bobbing their head to some beat only they can hear. It would seem obvious based on the prevalence of iPods and other devices during exercise that music must positively affect workouts. If not, why would so many people continue to insist that music helps them work up a better sweat?

However, it’s not as cut and dry as you might think. Sure, there’s some research to back up the assertion that music makes it “easier” to work out for longer amounts of time. In the July 2013 issue of Self, they quote Dr. Carl Foster, an exercise science professor at the University of Wisconsin as saying, “Manipulating tempo can work like a remote control, telling your body to speed up or slow down without a heightened sense of exertion.” In other words, you can basically force your body to work harder without feeling like you’re working harder just by increasing the tempo of the beat you listen to.

I can definitely attest to that fact—I had actually never listened to music while exercising until last summer, when I started taking an iPod I’d just acquired from an old roommate out on my morning runs. I was AMAZED at how much more quickly my runs seemed to go by, and it definitely seemed like I could push harder without really feeling the extra exertion.

But then I started coming across some articles in Runner’s World (which I basically consider the Bible for all things running-related) that severely cautioned against the overuse and overreliance on music during runs. And the more I looked into it, it seemed that the greatest “ultrarunners” (like Scott Jurek, who regularly runs crazy-long distances of 100-150 miles at a stretch) don’t listen to music at all during training or during races.

There are a couple reasons given for why listening to music might NOT be the best idea during exercise:

First, there’s the obvious issue of safety, especially if you’re exercising outside. Anytime you start multitasking, whether it’s running on a treadmill while listening to music or watching a t.v. show while lifting weights, there is definitely going to be reduced focus to BOTH activities, which could result in possible injury. I can’t tell you the number of times I was at the gym trying to watch the t.v. in front of me while running and almost rolled my ankle because I wasn’t paying attention to where my feet were stepping. Outside, the safety issue gets even worse—even though I listen to my iPod on low volume, it still muffles sounds of possible danger like oncoming cars or unfriendly dogs. Luckily, I haven’t had any close calls outside yet, but I could definitely see why running with music outside would be unsafe.

A second argument is one that I find over and over again in Runner’s World—-exercise expert Jim Deniso, Ph.D., summed it up best with this statement:

“One big problem is that listening to music can remove you from the other sounds that running produces, such as breathing and footstrike, which are essential cues. They give you feedback on your effort. Running while listening to music also removes you from the environment you’re in, which can be unsafe. You may not hear a car or person behind you. You may not hear thunder in the distance. And in races, it makes you oblivious of other runners and you can’t hear the directions being given by officials. Would you ever drive or ride a bicycle with headphones on? Not likely, because doing so reduces awareness and increases reaction time. I want those things working for me. Finally, I believe runners can become dependent on music. Eventually, you can lose a sense of what might be truly motivating to you, such as the energized feeling you get on the run.”

While he’s mostly talking about runners, I think the same principle could apply to a lot of different “traditional” exercises, like cycling on a stationary bike or working out on an elliptical—listening to music distracts us from what we’re doing, which might lower perceived effort but also produces a disconnect in our focus since we’re multitasking. So, in other words, it might SEEM like we’re not working harder when we are, but how much harder could we work if our entire focus was in whatever we were doing?

Speaking from my own personal experience, I usually choose to run or weight-lift (my exercises of choice) without music—I’ve found that it allows me to give full focus on the various components and physical feelings of what I’m doing, which keep me in tune with things like sensitive areas or really pumping out an effective rep with my weights.

Now, just to be clear, I’m not condemning the practice of listening to music while exercising–in fact, on the days when I’m feeling totally unmotivated but am determined to get out the door and run, the ONLY thing that will get me to go out is music. But I’ve usually found that the most efficient, head-clearing workouts are almost always the ones where I allow my thoughts and footfalls to take center stage, rather than the latest pop beat.

What side do you fall on? Do you listen to music while working out?

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