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The question

I love listening to music or watching TV when I exercise. How does that affect my workout?

The answer

In a forthcoming study, British researchers secretly sped up or slowed down music by 10 per cent and observed the effect on subjects riding exercise bikes. Sure enough, like marionettes on musical strings, the riders unconsciously sped up or slowed down.

The results add to a complex body of research on how distractions influence our exercise performance, extending far beyond the simple psych-up provided by motivational lyrics. Instead of just hitting shuffle next time you're at the gym, you might be able to harness these benefits by taking control of your playlist to enhance your workout.

The dominant theory about why music boosts exercise performance is that we have a limited ability to pay attention to the information our senses gather. Focus on sounds and sights, the theory goes, and you're less aware of the distress signals your muscles are sending you.

A 2007 study by Vince Nethery of Central Washington University offered support for this theory. Subjects exercising at a constant workload reported less discomfort when listening to music or watching a video. In contrast, an earlier study by Dr. Nethery found that subjects wearing earplugs and a blindfold reported greater levels of discomfort during exercise, presumably because they had nothing to focus on except their fatigue.

The new study by Jim Waterhouse and his colleagues at Liverpool John Moores University, which will appear later this year in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, adds a new twist by controlling the factors that usually confound studies of music and exercise: personal preferences, volume, pitch, duration, genre, lyrics and so on.

What tunes pump you up? Do you prefer sweating to the oldies or busting your butt to Busta Rhymes? Share the top tunes on your workout playlist.

The researchers chose six tracks that "reflected current popular taste among the undergraduate population" and combined them into a single 25-minute program, then digitally altered them to create faster and slower versions without changing the pitch.

The subjects exercised to three versions of the playlist with a week in between each session, and none of them noticed the differences in tempo. A 10-per-cent difference is quite small, Dr. Waterhouse says: "Compare the interpretations of Beethoven symphonies by [conductors Arturo]Toscanini and [Otto]Klemperer, for example."

The effect of tempo confirms the findings of several earlier studies, albeit with greater rigour. What's new, though, is the fact that the subjects reported greater enjoyment and higher levels of perceived exertion after the sped-up session. In other words, the faster music didn't simply distract them from their discomfort, it motivated them to happily endure greater levels of discomfort.

This result - along with many other conflicting studies in this area - suggests that the music-as-distraction theory ignores broader "psychosocial" factors, says Costas Karageorghis of Brunel University in Britain. He identifies rhythm, "musicality," cultural impact and the external associations of the song as the four key factors influencing a listener's response.

As a result, attempts to find universal effects of particular pieces, styles or even speeds of music on exercise are doomed. Instead, Dr. Karageorghis says, people should tailor their playlists to their personal preferences, and gyms should play different types of music by the cardio machines (faster) and by the weights (motivational lyrics).

Dr. Waterhouse's study also highlights an often-overlooked point: Playing the wrong music - slower tempos, in this case - can slow your workout down. Interestingly, some researchers have found preliminary evidence that watching TV or videos slows down your workout even more, suggesting that too much distraction not only dulls your pain but also distracts you from putting forth an honest effort.

The difference between video and music may have something do with the active attention required to watch a video - holding your head in the right position, for example - compared with passively listening to music, Dr. Nethery says.

"It may also highlight the value of rhythm associated with music," he adds. That would mean listening to a podcast or to talk radio would be more akin to watching a TV show than listening to music, though this hypothesis has yet to be tested.

Of course, even the "wrong" distractions are still beneficial if they get you out the door or keep you exercising longer. But it's worth being aware of the effects. Try paying attention to how different songs make you feel and perform during different exercises, and you may learn how to give yourself a boost when you most need it.

Headphone hazards

In 2007, headphones were banned at all major road races in the United States. While that ban has since been softened, listening to music while running or biking remains a serious safety concern on roads and paths with traffic, be it cars, bikes or other pedestrians. On empty trails with no one else around, it's still crucial to be aware of your surroundings, particularly for women exercising alone. The performance-boosting effects of music are best enjoyed indoors.

Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise and athletic performance at