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Smart ways music and dance can pump up your workout

Colin By Colin Groundwater

Running man with headphones

You’re coming to the end of a hard workout. You’re sweaty, out of breath and ready to quit. Just in time, your favorite song comes on and gives you the energy to push through. You move to the beat, mouthing the lyrics, and finish strong and proud.

Music is a powerful motivator during exercise. “The benefits really lie in allowing a person to focus on something other than how hard they’re working,” says Sabrena Jo, a senior exercise scientist at the American Council on Exercise. With music, your brain takes longer to realize your body is tired. This allows you to work out longer and harder without feeling like you’re putting in extra effort.

Here are some smart ways music can enhance your workout, whatever your fitness level.

Optimize your playlist.

Beats per minute (BPM) is a measure of music tempo. Selecting music with a BPM that matches your workout pace can boost performance. “Resistance and strength training tend to need slower beats per minute,” says Jo. “High-impact aerobics or vigorous activities like kickboxing require a faster beat.” The chart below, based on information from the American Council on Exercise, provides some general guidelines. When in doubt, 120 BPM is a good one-size-fits-all tempo.

BPM Workout
< 100 Yoga, Pilates, stretching, walking
100-129 Cycling, dance, rowing
130-160 Running, martial arts, trampoline

SongBPM.com is a handy website that allows you to check the tempo of any song. When creating your playlist, start and end with lower BPMs to match your warm-up and cool-down times. The genre is up to you. The tempo of pop, rock and country music varies widely, but others tend to stay within one range. See the chart below to discover new musical styles suitable for different workout intensities.

For suggested songs that range from an easy 80 BPM to a rocking 140, check out Aetna's You Don't Join Us, We Join You playlist on Spotify.

Tempo Music genres
Slow Swing, R&B, reggae, hip-hop, movie scores
Up-tempo Jazz, disco, Broadway show tunes, folk, bhangra
Fast Salsa, electronic dance music, bluegrass, punk

Lots of apps will create custom playlists of streaming music to match the pace of your workout. In-app tools help you figure out your intensity and suggest a rhythm for your activity. You can even alternate between two BPMs for interval training. Most apps offer a free version so you can try them out; you’ll pay $4-5 per month to avoid ads. Exercise music apps to check out: Spring Moves, RockMyRun, Songza, Jog.fm, GYM Radio, FIT Radio, and PaceDJ.

Read tips from a health coach on how to create a custom fitness plan.

Dance for cross-training.

Cross-training is any supplemental activity you engage in apart from your main sport. If you walk, run, bike, swim or lift weights almost exclusively, adding one day of cross-training per week can help your performance by strengthening different muscle groups and countering workout boredom or burnout.

Dance offers special cross-training benefits that you won’t get from sports. The first is lateral movement, which is often used in physical therapy to promote balance and help prevent injury. Dance is also a social activity, requiring you to coordinate movements with a partner or group. Read more about the benefits of group exercise.

Many new dance classes have appeared in recent years, catering to different fitness levels and music preferences. Here are three to consider:

  • Beginners: Bokwa. Developed by a South African dancer, this class is set to a mix of African beats and American hip-hop. Moves are easy to follow and allow you to put in as much or little effort as you like. Available in select gyms. 
  • Intermediate: BollyX. Inspired by the high-intensity music and choreography of Indian “Bollywood” films. Alternates low- and high-impact sequences for a full-body cardio workout. Available in gyms, on web video and DVD.
  • Advanced: Barre. Created by a ballerina as a form of physical therapy. While the moves are simple, this demanding strength routine can leave you sore for days. Available at gyms and dance studios, on web video and DVD.  Some health insurance plans offers discounts on gym memberships and exercise classes. If you’re an Aetna member, log in to see your fitness benefits.

About the author

Colin Groundwater is a writer from New Jersey living in Brooklyn. He’s training to run a half-marathon.