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To Make Interval Training Less Painful, Add Tunes

This may be the most efficient way to get in shape, but it may also be the least fun.
Li Zhongfei
This may be the most efficient way to get in shape, but it may also be the least fun.

There's increasing evidence that interval training, which involves alternating short bursts of harder exercise with easier recovery periods, delivers more health benefits than exercising at a steady rate.

But if you've tried it, you may have decided that exercising quite hard, even for short periods of time, is about as much fun as peeling off your toenails one by one. At its most intense, "people may say it's pretty aversive," said Matthew Stork, a Ph.D. student in kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

While high-intensity interval training is never going to feel like a stroll in the park, doing intervals while listening to some favorite tunes made participants work out harder and increased their reported enjoyment, according to a study by Stork and his colleagues.

The study, published online in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, took 20 healthy, moderately active adults and taught them to do a particularly tough form of interval training — four 30-second "all-out" sprints on a stationary bicycle with four minutes of rest in between — both with and without a personalized playlist of self-selected songs.

The exercisers had higher peak and average power outputs while listening to music than when not. They also reported more enjoyment with the music, and that enjoyment increased over time. Differences in participants' feelings (from "very good" to "very bad") and motivation weren't statistically significant. (They might have been if the study had included more participants, said Stork.) All of the participants said they'd listen to music again if they were doing this type of interval training.

The study is generally in line with other research in this area, says Costas Karageorghis, a sport and exercise psychologist at Brunel University London who studies the role of music in improving athletic performance. In general, research suggests that in endurance activities like running or cycling, music can make exercisers produce more power, improve energy efficiency and increase enjoyment.

In lower-intensity exercise, like walking or a Zumba class, it also seems to "block some of the neural messages from muscles to the brain, which makes us feel like we're working less hard," says Karageorghis.

At high intensities, music doesn't make the task feel easier, but it can boost enjoyment nonetheless. "It can't influence what we feel, but how we feel it, he says. The goal is to make an exercise bout feel more enjoyable toward the end of the session, so you're more likely to do it again another day."

And that may be especially useful when the form of exercise is not so enjoyable.

Karageorghis said there might have been a larger effect seen in this study if music had been selected for exercisers based on tempo, lyrics, personal tastes and other factors rather than allowing exercisers to pick their own tracks.

Stork said future research in this vein might evaluate the influence of music on milder versions of interval training that don't require an all-out effort.

Indeed, Karageorghis warned that the type of high-intensity interval training used in the study is tough by design, and is unlikely to appeal to beginners or keep them engaged for the long term – even if Kelly Clarkson is singing in your ear. It's more likely to attract people who already exercise and enjoy pushing themselves, he said.

My own running playlists include plenty of Jock Jams-esque tunes that I'd rather not admit to. (Okay, I'll cop to EMF's " Unbelievable.") If you need some new tunes in your rotation, check out NPR's Ultimate NPR Workout mix.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Katherine Hobson