For a study published last year, British researchers asked 12 healthy male college students to ride stationary bicycles while listening to music that, as the researchers primly wrote, “reflected current popular taste among the undergraduate population.” Each of the six songs chosen differed somewhat in tempo from the others.
The volunteers were told to ride the bicycles at a pace that they comfortably could maintain for 30 minutes. Then each rode in three separate trials, wearing headphones tuned to their preferred volume. Each had his heart rate, power output, pedal cadence, enjoyment of the music and feelings of how hard the riding felt monitored throughout each session. During one of the rides, the six songs ran at their normal tempos. During the other rides, the tempo of the tracks was slowed by 10 percent or increased by 10 percent. The riders were not informed about the tempo manipulations.
But their riding changed significantly in response. When the tempo slowed, so did their pedaling and their entire affect. Their heart rates fell. Their mileage dropped. They reported that they didn’t like the music much. On the other hand, when the tempo of the songs was upped 10 percent, the men covered more miles in the same period of time, produced more power with each pedal stroke and increased their pedal cadences. Their heart rates rose. They reported enjoying the music — the same music — about 36 percent more than when it was slowed. But, paradoxically, they did not find the workout easier. Their sense of how hard they were working rose 2.4 percent. The up-tempo music didn’t mask the discomfort of the exercise. But it seemed to motivate them to push themselves. As the researchers wrote, when “the music was played faster, the participants chose to accept, and even prefer, a greater degree of effort.”