Why you should listen to music when you do HIIT workouts, according to science
You've heard all about the benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). But if the “high-intensity” part sounds a little too, er, intense, a new study has some advice for you: Grab your headphones.
When University of British Columbia (UBC) researchers asked people who were new to HIIT to try a sprint-interval workout either with or without music, both groups came away with positive attitudes. But those who sweated to a playlist felt even better about the routine than those who’d worked out in silence.
Listening to music may make it easier for people to adopt these types of HIIT routines, say the study authors. That could help them stay in shape, they add, by allowing them to squeeze short, effective workouts into busy days.
Lots of people exercise regularly, but they do steady-state cardio (like long, slow jogs) or low-intensity activity (like walking or yoga). And while there’s nothing wrong with those types of exercise, research has shown that interval training can provide many of the same benefits—like burning calories and strengthening your heart—in less time.
"There has been a lot of discussion in the exercise and public policy worlds about how we can get people off the couch and meeting their minimum exercise requirements," said Kathleen Martin Ginis, PhD, professor of health and exercise sciences at UBC, in a press release. "The use of HIIT may be a viable option to combat inactivity, but there is a concern that people may find HIIT unpleasant, deterring future participation."
To examine newbies’ attitudes and intentions toward HIIT, researchers recruited 20 men and women unfamiliar with these types of workouts. After two preliminary training sessions, the participants completed two sprint interval training workouts on stationary exercise bikes about a week apart—one with music and one without. Each session included four to six 30-second “all-out” bouts of pedaling, separated by four minutes of rest.
After each session and again after a final follow-up meeting, the participants were asked to rank the workouts in terms of how enjoyable, beneficial, pleasant, painful, and valuable they found them to be. They were also asked how likely it was that they would do a similar workout three times a week going forward.
On average, the exercisers had already expressed positive assumptions about HIIT before the study began. And it turns out, their attitudes were just as positive after trying it for themselves. That was somewhat surprising, says study co-author and PhD candidate Matthew Stork, given the intensity of the workouts. But there’s more: Overall, the exercisers rated their session with music as more positive than their session without.
Somewhat surprisingly, participants’ “intention” scores (when asked if they’d continue these types of workouts) weren’t significantly different between the two sessions. Nonetheless, the authors wrote, using music to improve enjoyment and attitude toward HIIT “may eventually translate into improved [sprint-interval training] exercise intentions over time.”
It’s also possible, they admit, that the attitude boost provided by music really wasn’t enough to significantly improve participants’ intentions. But at the very least, says Stork, adding tunes to a tough workout probably won’t hurt.
"For busy people who may be reluctant to try HIIT for the first time, this research tells us that they can actually enjoy it,” he says, “and they may be more likely to participate in HIIT again if they try it with music."
The study was published in the Journal of Sport Sciences. Participants chose their own music and selections varied widely, says Stork, although they did tend to select fast, upbeat songs. That makes sense, he says, since music with fast tempos has been shown to facilitate speed increases in previous exercise studies.
As little as three 10-minute intense HIIT sessions a week can provide meaningful health benefits, says Stork, who's also a certified strength and conditioning coach. If people can incorporate these workouts into their regular routine, he adds, they may not necessarily have to get “the dreaded 150-minute weekly total.” (The American Heart Association recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, per week.)
Stork says that HIIT can be beneficial for people of all ages and fitness levels—although he cautions that anyone with a history of heart disease or other health risks should check with his or her physician before trying a new exercise protocol.
He also recommends familiarizing yourself with the intermittent nature of HIIT before jumping right into it for the first time, and to start off with intervals that may not require you to go all-out right away.
Indoor cycling and other aerobics classes often follow an interval format (with music!) and can be a great way to get started. Just be sure to start out at your own pace, says Stork, and to talk with the instructor beforehand if you have any concerns.
“One of the best features of HIIT-based exercise is that it calls for relative intensities, which can account for a range of fitness levels, and can be modified in many ways,” he says. “Don’t be afraid to start off with a protocol consisting of 4 or 5 work bouts and eventually work your way up to 10 bouts over a few weeks. There’s no need to push yourself too hard or too fast.”