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Faster tunes make you bike faster, even if it hurts a bit more

October 3rd, 2009

Researchers have been studying how music and other “distractions” affect exercise performance for decades (see here, for instance), hoping to trick us into pushing a little harder without realizing it. One of the factors they’ve looked at extensively is the speed of the music — the idea that faster tempos make us pick up the pace. The problem is that the effects of tempo tend to be swamped by the effect of whether the subjects in the experiment like the particular tunes selected for them. There’s a neat study that gets around this problem that just appeared online, in advance of print, at the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, by researchers from Liverpool John Moores University in Britain.

Basically, the researchers had subjects cycle for 25 minutes as hard as they chose, while listening to a set of six songs. They repeated the experiment three times with the same songs each time, with one catch: unbeknownst to the listeners, the music was sped up by 10% in one trial, and slowed down by 10% in another trial. This eliminated the question of whether the results were being skewed because, say, everyone really loved the Glenn Frey track.

As expected, the subjects biked a few percent faster and harder when the music was faster, and performed worse when the music was slower. Here’s the interesting twist: it wasn’t that faster music somehow numbed their pain and allowed them to work harder with no extra effort — their “perceived exertion” ratings were higher too.

That is, [the researchers write,] healthy individuals performing submaximal exercise not only worked harder with faster music but also chose to do so and enjoyed the music more when it was played at a faster tempo.

Remember the old tape players that had adjustible speed (so you could fine-tune the pitch of music)? Wouldn’t it be nice if MP3 players started including a little knob where you could fiddle with the speed of playback by a few percent in either direction, so that you could give yourself a little boost late in a workout?

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