For me, it's "Hall of Fame" by The Script. That's the song that makes me push through mental boundaries and run faster and farther when I want to give up. Music is a powerful motivator when it comes to fitness. It can help distract you from discomfort, motivate you to push harder, and just make workouts more fun. But what it can't do, according to a research, is improve your overall performance — at least not for certain sports.
A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology took a closer look at music in sports, specifically how listening to music could affect one's overall performance. Researchers asked 150 volunteers to throw a ball into a basket. For the first phase of the study, participants threw the ball from a fixed point (they could not choose where to stand). They threw the ball while listening to music of their choice, while not listening to music, or while listening to music that the researcher selected. For the second phase, they were able to choose where to stand when throwing the ball and performed the same activity with the various music options. Participants were also given a monetary incentive to sink the shot.
The study found that listening to music, whether it was music of the volunteer's choice or a song chosen for them, did not make the participants more or less likely to get the ball in the basket. It had no effect. What it did do was increase self-esteem and make the study participants more likely to take risks, especially for males who were allowed to choose their own music. This was assessed in the second phase in which volunteers were able to choose their starting point before throwing the ball.
"The results suggest that psychological processes linked to motivation and emotion play an important role for understanding the functions and effects of music in sports and exercise," said Dr. Paul Elvers, an interdisciplinary music researcher from Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics and a co-author of the study.
In other words, music may pump you up. And it may even help you workout harder and longer than you would without it. But no matter what song you listen to, it's not going to help you get that ball into the basket.
Why tempo matters
But sometimes it's not just about how well you play — it's about just making the effort. Maybe you just want to have the energy to keep playing or running or dancing.
Another study, also published in Frontiers in Psychology, took a detailed look at how music tempo might affect exercise. Researchers found that listening to high-tempo music makes people feel like they're working less while also benefiting their bodies more.
"We found that listening to high-tempo music while exercising resulted in the highest heart rate and lowest perceived exertion compared with not listening to music," study author Luca P. Ardigò of the University of Verona in Italy said in a statement. "This means that the exercise seemed like less effort, but it was more beneficial in terms of enhancing physical fitness."
The study found that the beneficial effects of high-tempo music were greatest for people who were walking or running and were felt the least for those who were doing high-intensity exercises such as weightlifting.
High-tempo music has between 170–190 beats per minute. Sites like jog.fm can help you find the perfect songs at the perfect tempo. Taylor Swift's "Bad Blood" is 170 bpm. Alicia Keys' "Wreckless Love" is 181 bpm.
Find some songs you like and start moving.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in February 2018.