01/22/2012 10:51 am ET Updated Mar 23, 2012

Want to Amp Up Your Workout Intensity? Just Pump Up the Jams

If you think you get a better workout, or feel motivated to do a harder workout when you're listening to your favorite tunes, it's not your imagination. Recent research actually shows that people exert more effort and don't mind doing so when they're pumping to the jams.

Group fitness instructors have long known this phenomenon to be true. When a song comes on that someone loves, their energy output automatically increases. Conversely, if someone hears a song they don't like, their energy level drops off and the work may even feel harder. The challenge in a group setting is finding a good mix of music that pleases everyone... Or at least almost everyone. Party and club DJs make a living at this.

Scientists are fascinated with this topic since it crosses multiple disciplines: biomechanics, neurology, physiology and sport psychology.

One of the most recent studies, published in September 2009, showed some potentially compelling results when it came to exercise performance while listening to music. The laboratory-controlled study had 12 healthy male students cycle at self-chosen work rates while listening to six popular music songs. The test lasted about 25 minutes and was performed three times. What the volunteers didn't know was that the music was played at three different tempos: normal, 10 percent faster and 10 percent slower. The researches found that speeding up the music increased their overall work. The subjects had higher heart rates, pedaled faster and harder, covered more miles in the same amount of time and they reported enjoying the music. When the test was done to the same music only slightly slower, the subjects' heart rate slowed and their work effort fell. They also reported not liking the music much. The researchers reported that "healthy individuals performing submaximal exercise not only worked harder with faster music but also chose to do so and enjoyed the music more when it was played at a faster tempo." In other words, they actually felt like working harder to uptempo music that they liked. Ummm, yeah, I could've told them that would happen.

However, this has only been found to work at "submaximal" exercise levels of light to moderate intensity. In fact, when you're working your hardest, even your favorite Lady Gaga remix or Guns and Roses song won't be able to push you past your limit. In 2004, Psychology of Sport and Exercise published a study on runners working at very high intensities both in a lab and in the field. The researchers found no performance improvement when listening to music vs. no music. Interestingly, the participants said they enjoyed having the music as it motivated them to continue despite the heavy-duty work being performed. Basically, during peak bouts of exertion, music may not make you faster or stronger, it may make for a more pleasurable atmosphere... especially if you're in a lab running like a maniac on a treadmill hooked up to wires and face masks.

On the other hand, when you're working out at a more moderate intensity, scientists have learned that music can divert the mind from sensations of fatigue and lowers the perception of how hard you're working. This is what psychologists refer to as "dissociation." According to a paper written by one of the foremost researchers on this subject, Costas Karageorghis, Ph.D., in The Sport Journal for the United States Sports Academy, "Effective dissociation can promote a positive mood state," and promote heightening vigor and happiness, "while negative aspects such as tension, depression, and anger are assuaged."

And for those of you who are slaves to the rhythm, research has consistently shown that exercising in sync to music helps us work out harder not just in a gym class, but also when doing sports like cycling, cross-country skiing, rowing and running. With the tempo of the music setting the pace of the movement, it can also keep up going longer and more efficiently. Dr. Karageorghis found in a 2008 study that cyclists who performed in time to the music required 7 percent less oxygen than when doing the same work with only background music.

So keep those iPods handy or hit your favorite gym for a fitness class that kicks out the jams. You'll work harder... and you'll like it like that!

For more by Jill S. Brown, click here.

For more on fitness and exercise, click here.