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Listening to music during a short, intense bout of exercise might change how you feel about hard workouts and encourage you to continue with the program in the future, according to a new study of intense interval training and how to make it more palatable.
High-intensity interval training is a popular concept, both in exercise science labs and gyms. It consists of repeated bouts of all-out, punishing effort sandwiched between several minutes of lighter exercise. The intense intervals last for as little as 10 or 20 seconds, but can improve most people’s health and fitness to the same extent as an hour or more of traditional moderate aerobic exercise, studies show.
The problem is that those 10 or 20 seconds are incredibly intense, demanding far more effort from people during the brief intervals than during even a lengthy jog.
Still, the allure of these very short, very intense workouts is obvious. They can fit into almost anyone’s schedule, even those who say they are too busy to exercise.
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But their drawback is equally clear. Most of us are not particularly fond of pushing ourselves during exercise, as both science and experience tell us. Many past studies of exercise behavior have indicated that if people consider a regimen to be difficult and unpleasant, they won’t keep doing it.
Such findings have prompted some scientists and public health experts to argue that the recent attention given to interval training is misguided. If intervals are so hard, they say, no one in the real world will voluntarily complete them.
However, surprisingly little science has actually looked at how people feel during and after high-intensity interval training and whether there might be ways to lessen people’s subjective sense of discomfort.
Listening to music, for instance, generally makes exercise feel easier, but in most past experiments, the exercise in question has been moderate cycling or jogging, not intervals.
So for the new study, which was published this month in the Journal of Sports Sciences, researchers from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, advertised for volunteers who would be willing to try a hard but very brief workout.
They wound up with 20 young, healthy, physically active male and female volunteers, each new to high-intensity interval training but curious about the workout.
These men and women completed a series of questionnaires about their attitudes toward intense training and whether they anticipated, without having tried this type of exercise, that they would like it and continue with such workouts later or abruptly quit.

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The researchers also asked them to list favorite songs that they thought would be worth listening to during a workout.
Then the researchers introduced them to a particularly grueling form of high-intensity interval training, hoping that it would amplify their physical and emotional responses, says Matthew Stork, a doctoral candidate, now at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, who led the study while at McMaster.
The workout consisted of an easy two-minute warm-up on a stationary bicycle, followed by four 30-second bursts of all-out, lung-bursting intervals with four minutes of rest between the intervals.
During one visit to the exercise lab, the riders completed this workout without listening to music. On another visit, their chosen playlist sounded through the lab’s speakers.
After each session, the riders rested for an hour and then repeated the questionnaires.
Mr. Stork says that the researchers had expected that, in line with other scientists’ concerns, the volunteers’ answers would show that, having now experienced strenuous interval training, they did not care for the discomfort and would not repeat it.
But instead, the riders’ attitudes toward the workout had generally turned out to be quite favorable, about a 5 on a scale of 1 to 7, with a 7 being essentially: “Wow, I really like this workout.”
Listening to music significantly intensified volunteers’ positive attitudes toward the training, raising their ratings closer to a 6.
Music also made it more likely that people would report intending to continue interval training in the future.
The results indicate that high-intensity interval training may not be as physically disagreeable and off-putting for many of us as some experts have feared, Mr. Stork says, and that adding music to the sweating seems to make the workouts even more enjoyable. (The researchers had used the same data in an earlier study that looked at whether music made people ride harder. It did.)
Of course, this was a small study of a particular group of people, all of whom were young, healthy, fit and open to trying intervals in the first place. They presumably also had comparable taste in music.
The findings cannot tell us if intense intervals would be similarly popular with or workable for anyone who is older, sicker, more reluctant to experiment with strenuous exercise, or listens only to Bach.
Mr. Stork currently is working on a number of studies that involve different types of people and different types of interval programs, he says. Early results should be available soon.
But for now, these new results do suggest that if you have been intrigued by the idea of brief interval workouts but worried that they might be too intense, experiment. Make up a playlist of your favorite songs, head to the gym or a running path and push yourself a bit. (If you have not been exercising, consult with your doctor first.) You may find that intervals are not only appealingly brief but also tolerable and even fun.
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