The Science Behind Workout Playlists

Why certain music is not healthy in summer – but is great in the dead of winter.

Christine ChenThe other day I was taking a morning walk through Central Park. The summer heat was in full effect, as was a fundraising race. Kiosks for water and music were set up throughout the park.

Hundreds of feet away from my walk, a DJ in a kiosk was blaring heavy metal music, rattling the entire area. I think the DJ was trying to provide motivation, but I found myself feeling tense. It wasn’t just me (the yoga teacher who prefers Jai Uttal, Norah Jones and Bruno Mars), because the two women with me (a mom-to-be and a dog-mom) expressed agitation before I even said a thing. One of them said, “Oh my God, let’s get out of here.” The combination of the heat and the rough, hard-driving, loud music had shifted our mood. Our fun walk became a full-on Central Park escape.

That was a perfect example of why choosing music for your workouts needs a little more attention than you might think if your goal is to feel well and balanced.

Healers around the world, and for centuries, have used sound and vibration for mental and physical benefit. Some doctors consult with Fortune 100 companies to pinpoint which types of sounds in the office environment will boost productivity and creativity. Dr. Mitchell Gaynor has written several books on this topic and discovered that a few sound sessions could help patients shift their healing perspectives “in a way that might normally take one to two years.”(The Healing Power of Sound, 2002)

Suzanne Sterling, spiritual music artist explained (in a healing workshop I attended) that if you actually hum (or sing) along with a song, “the sound you create from the inside breaks up the stress and moves it through the body.” Just knowing I could do that for myself was music to my ears!

Adjusting your workout tunes to your environment or the season keeps you in balance. That said, you need the right vibration for the season and the situation to support health.

Check it out.

Since I told you the story of the make-us-crazy metal moment, let’s keep it simple and explain it through the filter of summer. We’re in the middle of “Pitta” season according to Ayurveda, a 5,000 years old health system, which helps us make choices about food, lifestyle, yoga and more, including sounds. Pitta season is related to the element of fire. Summer is a hot season, so this makes sense already, right?

Fire is related to the energy of the gut, the self, personal power and will. Think: fire in the belly, feel it in your gut, digestive fire, etc. Energetically, this is where you muster up personal strength to burst your cardio or push yourself through tougher parts of your workout.

It also makes sense, then, that in a fire season, you don’t want to add more fire and create an inferno, if your ultimate goal is feeling well. Workouts should be a combination of both effort and ease. Think about your best workouts. They’re always the ones in which you feel challenged, haven’t burned yourself out to the point of exhaustion or injury, and taken the time to relax afterward, feeling blissed. Am I right?

In Central Park, that DJ probably intended to give the runners more “fire” to keep going, but because it was so hot and crowded, I would argue it made them more tired and a bit distressed. For the situation, metal was too much fire; it felt like an assault, actually. Know how you feel when you’re just too hot, too pushed and over-stimulated? You’re wiped out, right?

I would have suggested maybe more mainstream rock (the Stones?), fun pop with a beat (Daft Punk or Maroon 5 anyone?) or rhythmic hip-hop/R&B (Rhianna?). Choose music that keeps you going without creating so much heat it becomes a drain on your body and mind.

In cool, breezy Fall weather come September (Ayurveda’s “Vata” season), a mellow classical Beethoven piece with many wind instruments doesn’t really have a warming feel and therefore might feel so cooling you never get heated enough to burst or sustain. Workouts might feel more like a struggle, even if there are no hills on your route.

With the arrival of dead winter in December, (“Kapha” time), we’re drawn into the muddy earth by the rain, chill and heaviness of the season. This is the time to pump up the jam and avoid heartbreak songs on the treadmill that send you home to a pint of ice cream. You don’t have to choose metal, but house, dance, electronica, energetic and happy pop music or a quicker-paced hip-hop would be great.

For all seasons, to balance out the tough part of your workout, choose calming music to conclude and create a finishing balance:

  • Build in cool-down time. Your body was just amped, so don’t blow off arguably the most important part of your workout.
  • Breathe deeply to calm the mind and the body. Try inhaling to a count of four and exhaling to a count of six. This helps tell your mind to calm, which also helps support your body’s repair systems.
  • Try really hard not to think about anything but breathing. Release any thoughts of 1) your workout, 2) your work, 3) personal challenges, or 4) your to do list. It’s only a few minutes; you can do it.

Ayurveda’s basic principle is to balance out what already exists so that there’s not “too much” of one thing. In doing so, you work with your environment by season and the way you’re more inclined to feel because of the season.

Now, don’t stress out about it, but go redo your workout playlists. You’ll feel better!

CHRISTINE CHEN is a yoga teacher and health writer living, breathing deeply, and salsa dancing in New York City. She’s an Emmy-winning broadcast journalist who started yoga 13 years ago to help her spine problems and reduce stress. She learned how to make choices to support her well-being and discovered a whole new life. Subscribe to Christine's blog and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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