Why you shouldn’t exercise to indie rock

What’s the best music to exercise to? Scientists and laypeople alike have known that music affects everything from your mood to your co-ordination. But apparently one psychologist has attempted to quantify the effect of music on your workout: Costas Karageorghis, an associate professor of sport psychology at Brunel University in England. Ten years ago, he invented the Brunel Music Rating Inventory, which ranks songs based on four criteria. According to a story in today’s New York Times

… one of the most important elements, Dr. Karageorghis found, is a song’s tempo, which should be between 120 and 140 beats-per-minute, or B.P.M. That pace coincides with the range of most commercial dance music, and many rock songs are near that range, which leads people to develop “an aesthetic appreciation for that tempo,” he said. It also roughly corresponds to the average person’s heart rate during a routine workout — say, 20 minutes on an elliptical trainer by a person who is more casual exerciser than fitness warrior.

Dr. Karageorghis said “Push It” by Salt-N-Pepa and “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Snoop Dogg are around that range, as is the dance remix of “Umbrella” by Rihanna (so maybe the pop star was onto something). For a high-intensity workout like a hard run, he suggested Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On.” [snip]

In other words, the best workout songs have both a high B.P.M. count and a rhythm to which you can coordinate your movements. This would seem to eliminate any music with abrupt changes in time signature, like free-form jazz or hard-core punk, as well as music that varies widely in intensity, like much of indie rock.

I love it: Don’t exercise to indie rock! It’s too whiny! And do not even think of working out to emo. That stuff’ll reverse your metabolic rate.

Oddly, this whole debate reminds me of Sasha Frere-Jones’ critique of indie rock in the New Yorker — “A Paler Shade of White” — in which he argued that indie rock (such as Wilco, pictured above) has systematically stripped out any influences from the R&B roots of American rock ‘n roll proper, and has thus become, among other things, singularly undanceable. “In the past few years, I’ve spent too many evenings at indie concerts waiting in vain for vigor, for rhythm, for a musical effect that could justify all the preciousness,” he wrote. “How did rhythm come to be discounted in an art form that was born as a celebration of rhythm’s possibilities?” As you’d imagine, there was a tsunami of outcry to — and praise for — Frere-Jones’ piece. Those who agreed with him decried what they saw as the unrhythmic plodding-ness of indie rock; those who disagreed pointed out plenty of bouncy counterexamples, and questioned Frere-Jones’ whole identification of whiteness with a lack of synchopation.

But it strikes me that we could resolve the question by gathering some highly relevant data: The playlists on MP3 players at the local gym! If we presume that exercise goes best to rhythmic music, and furthermore that few gym-goers would actively seek to undercut their workout with nonrhythmic music, then we’ve got a nice built-in control for the inherent subjectivity of music appreciation. If indie rock is rhythmic, people will exercise to it; if it isn’t, they won’t.

Anyone out there looking for a fun sports-psychology MA or PhD thesis?

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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