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Turn on, tune in, work out

By James Fell
Chicago Tribune

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  • Music for a workout

    Consider these. I’m a dinosaur, and you probably think I have terrible taste in music. I don’t care. The research shows even slow music can motivate as well as fast-paced music. James Fell

    Running and cycling

    I can listen to anything from Sarah McLachlan to Metallica. However, if I’m coming to a big hill, I may skip past a slow song to find something with a faster beat. Songs I like for that include:

    “Limelight,” by Rush

    “Kashmir,” by Led Zeppelin

    “Shake it Out,” by Florence and the Machine

    “Month of May,” by Arcade Fire

    “Weapon,” by Matthew Good

    “Panama,” by Van Halen

    “Train in Vain,” by The Clash

    “Dark Night of the Soul,” by Loreena McKennitt

    “Gimme Shelter,” by The Rolling Stones

    “Pride,” by U2

    Weightlifting

    Since I have a home gym with a stereo that has T-Rex-sized speakers, I crank it loud. Usually with lots of Rush to accompany the Rush poster on the wall. Because it’s Rush. However, I sometimes like to sing in between sets, so I pick songs like these for that:

    “Go Your Own Way,” by Fleetwood Mac

    “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” by Elton John

    “Layla,” by Eric Clapton (Derek and the Dominoes)

    “Take it Easy,” by The Eagles

    “I Just Came Back (to Say Goodbye),” by Colin James


  • Win a $25 iTunes card

    Send us your workout playlist of at least 5 songs (include performer’s name). We’ll publish some of the lists in the paper and online. One person will win the gift card.

    Surprise us with something cool, fun and outside the usual power anthem faves. Send your list to: clever@charlotteobserver.com. Deadline: 11 p.m. Wednesday. Include name and address. Roland Wilkerson



When I started working out, I had a personal music player the size of a dachshund for exercise motivation. I filled it with Rush and Joe Satriani mix tapes to enhance my workouts.

Technology has come a long way since then.

Now I use an iPod Shuffle, which is preferred among fitness folks for its diminutive size, even if it does have a robustness issue when it comes to a little sweat.

One night I recall waking up at 3 a.m., as if from a bad dream, my consciousness shrieking: The battery in my iPod is dead, and I have an early bike ride planned! I had to get up and plug in the thing in order to get back to sleep.

I am a music junkie when it comes to working out, and I know many people who, if their music player is dead, lose their motivation to exercise. They’re dependent. Science explains why.

In 2005, British researchers put 18 untrained men and women on stationary bikes and told them to go for it. One group got no music, one got motivational, get-your-butt-in-gear-type music, and the third group got Enya. (I mean I assume it was Enya. The researchers called it “nonmotivational.”)

Published in the European Journal of Sport Science, they found the music listeners blew away the control group (which had no music), and the tuned-in subjects traveled significantly farther. What’s interesting is “no significant differences were observed” between the slow- and fast-music groups. Even more interesting is that though music listeners were working a lot harder, they did not perceive an increased level of effort.

James Annesi, director of wellness advancement at YMCA Metropolitan Atlanta, has researched how distractions such as music affect athletic performance. We discussed his 2001 study published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science that compared use of music with television on treadmills.

“We allowed people to use a wide selection of music channels versus television channels,” Annesi told me. “Almost exclusively, people chose the TV over music.”

Music, television, chatting with a friend or traveling through a scenic vista are all methods of dissociation, Annesi said. “It’s all about removing discomfort. Pain has been engineered out of our culture. In agrarian times we had to exercise or die, but now we need to find ways to manipulate conditions to get people to exercise.”

Dissociation via music is about making us not think about the pain we’re in.

When music interferes

For those who need the motivational kick to distract from the pain, music or other distractions can be of great benefit and get them to train harder. But for more elite exercisers, music may interfere.

“Elite athletes are associators,” said Jack Raglin, a professor and sport psychologist at Indiana University. “When they’re just logging the miles in training, they can listen to music, and a lot of them do. But for the really intense efforts you have to pay close attention to your body. Music will absolutely interfere with this.”

I ran a 10K race with an iPod in 2008. I’d planned out a specific rockin’ playlist and everything. I felt the distraction held me back from a full effort. The next 10K race I ditched the music and chopped 4 minutes off my time. Now I never listen to music when racing.

There may be other reasons to listen to music, like if your gym plays lots of Nickelback. I also have a suspicion that some female weightlifters wear headphones to deter would-be suitors from approaching, and when I posted this question on Facebook I received numerous confirmations.

“Men are less likely to come up and talk to me when I’m listening to music,” said Jessica Morse, a 32-year-old government worker in Ottawa, Ill.

Morse, who is also a fitness competitor in the “bikini class,” explained her motivation. “We have some creepers at my gym, and it’s awkward. I use music as a deterrent.”

James Fell is syndicated fitness columnist and certified strength and conditioning specialist.

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