Episode 114: Understanding the Psychological Effects of Music in Fitness with Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal

In this episode we continue our conversation with Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal as we explore what we love most about fitness- music, and the way it feels when the right song comes on at the right time.

Kelly McGonigal

Psychologist, Fitness Professional, & Best-Selling Author

In this episode we continue our conversation with Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal as we explore what we love most about fitness- music, and the way it feels when the right song comes on at the right time. Listen to this episode to learn the science behind what we already intuitively know and feel about music: how it can literally make our bodies capable of doing things that we couldn’t do without that awesome song; how it can have a huge impact on how we think about ourselves and even how we make choices about what’s possible when things get hard in our lives outside of the studio; how it allows us to experience and express different aspects our ourselves- whether it’s emotions like joy, or personal traits like inner power and strength; and of course, how that perfect playlist acts as a social glue that bonds us together with the people we’re moving with. Most importantly, we’ll learn from Kelly how we can use all this knowledge to harness the effect of music and create even more powerful life-changing workout experiences.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

• How music can change our interpretation of the physical sensations we have when working out

• How to choose the right music to inspire and help people overcome challenges

• The most powerful element of music that you might not be utilizing  

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The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage


Here’s the Complete List of Tips:

(3:15) Some of the incredible things music can do to enhance the experience of moving your body.

  1. Music is “ergogenic” which means, “facilitating work”, especially physical work. Which means that listening to music while exercising can literally make your body capable of doing things that it could not do without the music.
  2. It changes the way that we interpret what we feel when we exercise. What does it MEAN that you’re sweating, or that your legs are tired. This can have a huge impact on the way we think about ourselves (what does it mean that I did that workout?), remember the workout in the future (did I enjoy that, would I do it again?)
  3. It also allows us to experience and express different aspects of ourselves, whether it’s emotions like joy, or personal traits like strength, power, and ferocity. Music pushes the buttons in our brain that are all about emotions, feeling, and self-expression.
  4. Music can be like a social glue. If we’re moving with other people, it’s a bonding factor with others we’re moving with.

 (5:30) The limits of the “distraction effect” The distraction effect of music only works up to “moderate” intensity. So this means that if you’re just outside your comfort zone, music works as a powerful distractor so that you don’t notice the sensations of effort as much. People will report that they enjoy the exercise more, can do more, and go longer. BUT, as soon as the effort gets more intense, it flips. Music cannot help distract you, but it CAN help with changing how you perceive the effort. e.g. You’re getting to a point where you can’t ignore the fact that it’s getting hard to breathe. In that moment the music can help pair that sensation with the reward center in your brain. It can cause that adrenaline rush, dopamine burst and endorphins. It means, if you make that pairing often enough, your brain will associate the sensation not with the discomfort, but with how the adrenaline, dopamine, and endorphins make you feel, which is “I’m amazing, I can do anything, etc.” Be conscious of the music that you use for intended levels of intensity. Are you trying to distract? Or are you trying to help them push past threshold? Your music needs to be different, and in the case of the latter- drive them forward.  

(9:30) Does it help if we as instructors acknowledges the sensations our clients are likely feeling during a difficult moment?

When you are asking people to fully leave their comfort zone, because you can’t distract them anymore, talking about the sensations of effort helps. It is not helpful to train people to try to escape the feelings they have. That would be training other “escape” tendencies for when things get hard like getting drunk. To teach people that you can stay with intensity and adopt a mindset that finds meaning and strength in it is extremely helpful and powerful for people. Music helps us do this. So then next time they have to walk into a difficult conversation or have to do anything else hard in life, they will associate the pounding feeling of their heart with the last time they felt that feeling- in your class when you encouraged them to be brave.

Don’t lean on cues like “this will sculpt a bigger booty” when you’re asking them to push outside their comfort zone. Even though that’s often the reason why they came (to sculpt a better body) it’s not a cue that will help them in that moment of heightened vulnerability. Don’t bring attention to their insecurities in this moment.

(14:30) How to choose music for training people There are certain qualities of music that will both invite people to move, and when you move to them, are likely to trigger the adrenaline rush, dopamine, etc. 120-140 Beats Per Minute is the most powerful, with a strong beat that is easy to hear and encourages you to move. The desire to move to a beat is called “groove”. It’s a human instinct- to move when you hear a musical beat- you can’t help it. But it’s actually the LYRICS that have the biggest effect on people. Songs that have words like have powerful words or telling you stories of perseverance, strength, or hope. Sometimes choosing music that causes a swelling up of nostalgia or positive memories that can enhance our desire to move and feelings about the workout. Or something that puts people in a sate of contemplation and be with music. So that means not every song in your playlist should be 120-140 BPM. We need that moment to slow down and digest.  

(20:30) Lip-syncing and singing release endorphins, and change your perception of the workout! (It’s also great for the core! Plus, when we engage those deep core muscles like we do when we sing, there’s an association in the brain with the feeling of “I’ve got this”)  

(23:00) How to choose the right music?

If you play music in your classes, frequently ask people what songs they want to move to. What songs make them want to sing along? Is there a song that people remember from a time in their life where they found strength? Play songs that people know, but also teach people about songs they don’t know! People will fall in love with you for making them fall in love with something new.

Music is so powerful. It’s a way to access our empathy and ability to connect with others. The more you expand your musical repertoire, the bigger your sense of common humanity. Movement amplifies all that is good about music and what it brings out in us. It’s powerful that we as fitness professionals give people an embodied appreciation of music.

References in the Episode & Additional Resources:

How Music Can Improve Your Physical Performance with Costas Karagheorgis

Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I) by Costas Karagheorgis

The psychophysical effects of music in sport and exercise: A review

Barry, Shay, and Kelly’s playlist

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