Tips to Live By

PODCAST: Can the Music You Listen to Improve Exercise Performance?

June 27, 2023


LISTEN & SUBSCRIBE: Spotify | Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Amazon Music

We all have go-to workout songs — ones you can always count on to help you get the darn thing done, no matter how unmotivated you are to exercise or how hard your workout gets. What is it about the connection between music and exercise? Is it just a way to distract us from the task at hand and make working out more bearable? Or does a song's tempo have a way of improving our physical performance? In this episode, we explore the effect music has on the brain and whether what we listen to can make for a more effective workout.

Hosts: Zach Moore (interviewer), Katie McCallum

Expert: Maegan Morrow, Senior Music Therapist

Notable topics covered:

  • How the brain senses and responds to music
  • Beats per minute: How both heart rate and musical tempo are measured
  • Why synchronizing your heart rate to a song's tempo makes for effective exercise
  • How Maegan uses these principles to help rehabilitate brain injury patients in the ICU
  • Whether the volume of what you listen to matters during a workout
  • Tips for building the perfect workout playlist
  • Ways to determine the beats per minute of your favorite songs
  • Running vs. weightlifting vs. HIIT: Do you need different playlists for different types of exercise?
  • Why your workout playlists need more than high tempo songs
  • TV shows, audiobooks, podcasts: Does it matter if you don't listen to music?


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Episode Transcript

ZACH: Welcome to On Health with Houston Methodist. I’m Zach Moore. I’m a photographer and editor here, and I’ve worked in multimedia and television for over 15 years, and I’m also a longtime podcaster.

KATIE: I’m Katie McCallum, I’m a former researcher, turned health writer, mostly writing for our blog.

ZACH: Katie, how about that different music?

KATIE: I know, I loved it, it's --

ZACH: I’m pumped up, aren’t you?

KATIE: Yeah, it's perfect for today's topic. Zach, what are we talking about today?

ZACH: We’re talking about music, exercise, and how the two are interconnected.

KATIE: I love it because one of my -- One of my favorite parts about exercising is that it's my time to kind of like listen to some of the music I like. I work out a couple times every week. I try to do like three or four times a week, sometimes it's only one, sometimes it's five.

ZACH: Five times a week?

KATIE: Yeah, I try to work out every other day.

ZACH: Now is that a combination of home and gym or all self-work out?

KATIE: Well, it's changed over the years. Pretty much always self, kind of self-directed workouts, for sure. I'm not like a group workout person. It's like my quiet time. My me time, actually. Used to go to a gym when I had kind of, like, free access to a gym when I was in grad school. Then when I lived in an apartment that had a pretty decent gym so would use that. Now, we've kind of made our own like, home gym. We're one of those people.

ZACH: Okay.

KATIE: Yeah, so we invested in some workout equipment. So now, I just work out at home.

ZACH: Okay.

KATIE: How about you Zach?

ZACH: I've had an on and off journey with exercise.

KATIE: Yeah, that's me too, actually. Yeah. Sometimes I get in these moods where I barely work out.

ZACH: I mean, when I was younger, I played sports so that kind of took care of that, also marching band, very -- Yeah, above average physically active, when I was younger. And then, you know, just got so busy and I was like, well, I'm fine. I don't really need to exercise and then your metabolism starts to catch up with you, when you get a little older. You have a little more money so you can eat and drink more than you used to. Yeah, you know. So, things start you know, filling out, right? And so, the various points of the last few years, I've gone on like health journeys and then “On Health” journeys. If you want to call it that, right?

KATIE: Yeah, I hear you.

ZACH: But it really wasn't until -- Leading up to me getting married. I was like, okay I need to work out here. I’ve got to be in better shape. So, I had a personal trainer like a friend of a friend. So that was helpful and very personal, literally, a personal trainer, I guess it’s the whole point. But then okay, got married. I’m like, “Okay, I'm done exercising. I’m too busy.”

KATIE: Wedding’s over.

ZACH: My wedding’s over, right? And, you know, it's been, as of this recording, right. It’s been about a year and both me and my wife are like, you know what, we need to get back into exercise. So, we recently signed up for a gym, one of these group workout gyms. Where you go, and there's a class, and it's like high energy and there's a lot of music they play that kinda keeps your pace going.

KATIE: They do the heart rate monitors? You wear the heart –

ZACH: They're fantastic, like I love that, where you can keep track of where you are. ‘Cause I feel like it, like, justifies like look, I'm huffing and puffing over here, and I know it doesn't look like I'm doing a lot, but for me.

KATIE: Yeah.

ZACH: I'm almost dying, about 100% up there on the heart monitor. So, I can kind of like prove. I have like, tangible proof.

KATIE: This is a workout for me.

ZACH: Everybody's different.

KATIE: Yeah.

ZACH: Right, everybody’s body is different. So, what is maybe just like a light workout for one person can be just every last drop of energy for another person.

KATIE: Yeah, it’s all about your base fitness.

ZACH: That's where I am right now, you know, I'm getting back from that journey and as of this recording, we've been doing it for a few weeks.

KATIE: Nice.

ZACH: And I really enjoy it, and it's something that you really gotta just find what works for you when you're working out.

KATIE: Agreed.

ZACH: If you -- If you dread it every time, and if you don't enjoy it -- Not that it's always like, enjoyable, but it's, you know, tolerable. I don't know, a lot of people do enjoy exercise and stuff, right.

KATIE: Yeah.

ZACH: But I feel like if you, you know it when you find it. Like whatever pattern works for you, and fortunately, I can say that I'm in a good pattern right now.

KATIE: Nice, I love that for you. You mentioned music though. We're going to talk about a lot today. And you know, you asked if I do my like self-directed workouts or group workouts. One of the things I like about doing a self-directed work out is I also – It is a time -- I love music, and it's a time where I can literally just like listen to a lot of my favorite songs that I really like, and they kind of like get me in the motivation to work out. Which is what we are going to talk about today, right, Zach?

ZACH: We are Katie, we talked to Maegan Morrow. She's a Senior Music Therapist here at Houston Methodist and she gave us a lot of great tips about exercise, music, and how the two are interconnected.

[Sound effect signaling beginning of interview]

So, we're here with Maegan Morrow. A Senior Music Therapist at Houston Methodist, thanks for being with us today, Maegan.

MAEGAN: Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

ZACH: So, just to start off, could you define music therapy for us, like what does it encompass? And then what do you, specifically, do as a music therapist yourself?

MAEGAN: Music therapy is an allied health field. It's a clinical practice combining music and the relationship with a therapist to accomplish therapeutic goals. And that could be in the domains for emotional help, physical help, and medical help. And so, a lot of what we do here at Methodist is in the medical realm.

ZACH: And you specifically, you are more in the physical or the mental? Where do you fall?

MAEGAN: About 17 years of my career in the medical center has been in physical rehabilitation and research. And I transitioned over into more of the critical medical side of things. So, I'm using music therapy in the ICU setting, and also in neuro-acute rehab. So, I'm kind of a hybrid of a job here. So, I'm part of the Center for Performing Arts Medicine Creative Arts therapists, and I'm also part of the Houston Methodist in The Woodlands Network Hospital rehab therapists. So, I'm kind of doing a bit of both sides, a little bit of mental health with music therapy, and a little bit of functional physical rehab with music therapy.

ZACH: No, that's great. And that's something that we've really honed in on in this podcast, as we see how everything is really connected. Mental, physical, all these things are all interconnected. And that's really a big part of what we're gonna be talking about today. And you know, you've had a lot of experience in this area and maybe tell us about some of the, like tangible connections you've seen between music and the body, and what the effect is on patients and other people you’ve worked with over the years.

MAEGAN: So, working in the neurologic side of music therapy, has really helped me to see how music affects the brain and body in an immediate sense. A lot of times when people have a stroke to a certain area of the brain, or maybe even a traumatic brain injury, it can affect regions that may help you for walking, or help you for talking. And what they found over the years, actually looking at the brain in functional MRIs, is that they can see how music can actually be found all over the brain. There's not just one section that harnesses music, you know, and understanding, or creation of music, but your body and brain perceive music and allow your body to move or talk again, through just singing or hearing a beat. So, for example, I've worked with a lot of patients that have hemiparesis after they've had some type of injury to the brain. Whenever someone has a stroke, let's say they had an injury to the right side of the brain, the left side of the body is going to be paralyzed, and they may not be able to walk again unless they get the right kind of therapy. So, of course, we think physical therapy first, right? They're gonna be getting the patient up and walking with them. But not a lot of people realize that music therapists can help in that situation as well. So, we use the element of rhythm. What happens in the brain is when your body hears rhythm, or an external cue is -- As I like to describe it. It immediately wants to sync up and entrain with that rhythm. It's like a force upon your body. We describe our brains as feed-forward mechanisms, so it's anticipating the next beat, so to speak. Your body and brain want to make sense of the environment. So, when it hears a pulse, it's going to entrain with that beat.

ZACH: That’s why we start nodding our head along, tapping our foot.

MAEGAN: Yeah! Exactly.

ZACH: Subconscious draw to do that.

MAEGAN: If you hear – Yeah. You may start bobbing, you may start tapping your foot and ultimately, we want you to move to the rhythm that we want to move you with, in order to get you walking again. So, a lot of times the physical therapist will contact the music therapist, and will collaborate in these types of situations when there's a hemiparetic walker. And so, I'll come in and watch the patient walking with the physical therapist. I take an assessment to see, you know, where they are, kind of a baseline of how far they're able to get, what their cadence is, what their velocity is. That sort of thing. And then I will match the rhythm that they're going at, and try to speed it up or slow it down. And so, what I'm doing there is a real basic principle to music therapy in general. It's called the iso principle. And a lot of that was used to help people with mood regulation, but it also can be applied for physical goals, right? So, iso just means equal in Greek. And basically, we're trying to equal where you are in the moment. So, if you're walking slow, I'm going to equal that pace, and bring a rhythm that will be slow. And then gradually speed it up over time. And what is really cool about that technique is that you actually see changes within one session. So, it could happen in a matter of 30 minutes, it could happen in a matter of 5 minutes, but it's because of the collaboration and using the rhythm to help with that goal.

ZACH: Yeah. And what's so exciting about this is you do these techniques for physical therapy, but they can also apply to people who are not in physical therapy, who just want to do exercise and trying to get the most out of it, and using music in that way. So, what kind of experience do you have in that area? Or what do you think?

MAEGAN: Exactly like for wellness or your personal lifestyle and exercise, right? Actually using rhythm to challenge yourself to run faster. Maybe if you're a runner or you're planning to do a marathon, you know, you have to have something to help you with your motor system in that same sense, but also, it's gonna help you with the motivational side of things. So, a lot of times in that physical rehab, it's very broken down to just rhythm only, and maybe a few instruments layered on that because that's all that that patient can handle. But on the other side of things with someone like me or you, just working on our wellness, and trying to work in exercise. We can use all the elements of music and the type of music that we actually prefer to help motivate us to get better, or to get faster. With that side of things, I actually build playlists with people, in order to kind of meet them where they are again. Like I said, the iso principle, and maybe meet them in their mindset of, you know, how can I pump myself up to get outside and go to run? Or meeting them where their heart rate is, and what is safe for them to be running at. So, in the physical therapy world, we know that if you wanna challenge yourself to like that highest point, to be working out at a safe way. You would look at your age and you take the number 220, and you subtract your age and then you get a certain like, rhythm that you should be working out at, a BPM. So, in my case, it's like 170 or something like that. That's like the maximum heart rate for me, that I should be working out at. Well, I can use that same rhythm to apply to the music playlist that I'm creating so that I can reach that point, right? And so, my playlist may look like, okay, we're just gonna warm up. We’re – Our resting heart rate is low. So, my song might be a little slower and then each song gradually raises that BPM until I'm up at my maximum, and then maybe I'll do that for a certain endurance, and then I'll pull it back down and slow myself down, you know. But I can do that through the music controlling me, instead of me just trying to do it randomly by myself, or using some other apparatus. Music can be really a lot more motivating and there's so many other things pushing you to, to kind of keep going, so to speak. Like your endurance may be longer, you may run farther, run faster, run -- Maybe as you plan for your marathon, you know, using these playlists to kind of encourage you and help you to keep going.

ZACH: Now, I'm glad you brought up playlists, ‘cause that’s something I wanna to talk to you about, as far as like constructing your perfect playlist.


ZACH: As you said, everybody's body is different, everybody's BPM is gonna be different, the goal, the safety range, all that sort of thing. But just a general like arc of a playlist, right?


ZACH: It should be kind of like an arc of an actual workout, right? You warm up. You get intense. You cool down. So, can you talk us through? Like maybe -- Maybe the kind of like, style of what a workout playlist should be.

MAEGAN: Well, first and foremost, it has to be preferred music, right? It's something you like and enjoy. You're probably not gonna pick something that you don't like, ‘cause that would just, you know, be a double problem. For a lot of us exercise and working out is a really hard task, it can be a hard discipline to get into. So, using preferred music, first and foremost. The other thing is beat saliant music. So, something that actually has a good beat for a biped, to walk, run, or jog, right? Using that maybe like a 4-4 pattern to get that pace up. You can find songs easily in the western world music. Most of our music in the pop, country, rock, metal, EDM. All those domains are usually in 4-4 or some kind of biped, you know, beat. And so, you want something that has a pulse that you can follow. And what's really cool about technology now, is that we have streaming systems to listen to music and they're actually songs and playlists created on there from other users that -- And even from the company itself that actually tell you the BPM of the songs. So, you go get a created playlist or you could find your own, and I can tell you how to do that too. Rhythm is a part of every part of music, right? And I trained as a pianist growing up, and so, I had to use a metronome to keep the beat. And there are such like, fascinating metronomes out there in the app world. So, you can literally type in, “Free metronome,” and it'll come up on whatever smartphone you have. And you can find one that has a tap feature, where you can tap a beat and it'll tell you the cadence or the beats per minute that are happening. Or you can set it to a certain number that you want to hear.

ZACH: We've come a long way since the whole tick tock wooden --

MAEGAN: Yeah. Just a little tick tock with the little weight, right?

ZACH: Exactly.

MAEGAN: And some of ‘em look like that, visually, if you wanna see a visual rhythm that can be helpful, but usually it's the auditory rhythm that's the most powerful. And what I was talking about earlier, we know that when we hear a rhythm it goes to our auditory system first, and then it goes straight to the subcortical regions of our old brain in the cerebellum and that connects to the spinal cord. And it makes you want to move. So intrinsically, it's a phenomenon. You will start pulsing because your brain wants to do that. It's almost like a control of you.

ZACH: Yeah.

MAEGAN: You know, so being mindful of how you control it, and what you're putting in your ears, especially if you're exercising and listening to these playlists, with the earbuds, it's like going straight into your brain. Like its -- It can be pretty powerful.

ZACH: Do you recommend earbuds, by the way, when you're working out or –

MAEGAN: You know, either or. It depends on the environment, and I was just talking –

ZACH: Yeah, don't go to the gym with a giant boom box.

MAEGAN: Well yeah, yeah. The 80’s is over. No, but I was talking about that with a physical therapist yesterday. Like a lot of my friends that do CrossFit, they're in a gym with a lot of stimulus going on and they're not going to pump music through there because not everybody likes the same music necessarily. And if that's damaging or harmful you can put in your own headphones. But at the same time, it can be safe to not have headphones in that environment because you may be spotting somebody or working together.

ZACH: Gonna be trapped in your own world or lost in your own world, I should say.

MAEGAN: Exactly. So, I think about when you're isolated in workout, maybe you're doing your own weightlifting program, or you're running and jogging. That's a good time to use earbuds.

ZACH: Yeah, even then I usually would just use one ear bud.


ZACH: Just to kind of have one ear on the world around you. One ear – ‘Cause, you know, you like you said, you're out on the street, you're jogging, you're riding a bike.


ZACH: Be aware of traffic, and other people around. Awareness is important.

MAEGAN: Yes, it is.

ZACH: You know, speaking of headphones and being aware of your surroundings, and how much sound input you're taking in when you're doing all these things. Volume level. I feel like a lot of us think, “Yeah. I'm gonna get more pumped up and gonna push through this last one. I'm going to get really loud music and gonna find that inner strength,” right? Is there a connection to a volume as well as beats per minute?

MAEGAN: Yeah. You know, I'm glad y'all brought that up because volume can be a safety issue for sure. Like we mentioned, if you're out in the environment working out you want to have it at a lower volume so that you can kind of hear what's going on in your surroundings. But the other thing is just protecting your ears and your auditory system. There's a certain decibel level that is safe for us. I don't know the number right now, but we do need to be careful about just protecting our ears. I know that they actually can't handle as much as most of us think that it can, and those inner ear buds can be unsafe at times. So, being mindful to keep the volume down, it doesn't have to be too extremely loud, as long as your brain is hearing that pulse and that beat to help you get entrained to it, you're fine. But on a side note, a lot of us are sensory seekers. That's the kind of person I am. I grew up in a Rock and Roll environment surrounded by a lot of drummers in my family, and things like that.

ZACH: You wanna just like bathe in the sound, right.

MAEGAN: I want the sound, I go to metal concerts so I can feel my body vibrate and that may not necessarily be ultimately safe for me. I need to do that in certain doses, but – So, it's just like being careful, you know, with the time that you're having sensory overload. Sometimes we need that, and sometimes we need to take a break from that. So, just being careful about it.

ZACH: No, that's a great point about the sensory overload. Because you just want to be like part of what's going on, right?


ZACH: But then on the other side of that having that quiet time to kind of just disconnect entirely is equally important.

MAEGAN: Exactly. Yeah. And sometimes your exercise or run may be full-out quiet, and just listen to nature around you. You know, it's good to take those breaks. So, use these things mindfully. Back to the metronome, that app will help you figure out what beats your song is in. So, if you have this list that you're starting to make, the playlist, you may want to start at a slow BPM.

ZACH: Yeah, I’ve seen some websites do that as well.

MAEGAN: Yeah. They’ll do it for you. But if you wanna do it yourself, you can use your metronome and set it to the beat that you're listening to you. And you can kind of create your own playlist, using a metronome and looking at your heart rate that you want to match with that is very similar. The beats per minute for a metronome is similarly calculated for the beats per minute for your heart rate.

ZACH: You mentioned a lot of genres of music earlier.


ZACH: And I was going to ask about soundtracks, like movie soundtracks.

MAEGAN: I love that you brought that up. Yes, I think that soundtracks are great for running and things like that, and like kind of getting in your own world, and maybe even using visualization techniques that kind of pair with like mindfulness practices and almost like going into a meditation, so to speak. So, you’re basically, escaping for a moment. Like, hey, I'm in this scene, I’m this movie.

ZACH: Oh, absolutely.

MAEGAN: Reliving it, you know.

ZACH: Absolutely, that's what helps me push over the edge sometimes. Listening to like a Rocky movie soundtrack, or a superhero movie soundtrack, right?


ZACH: Superman lifting up that continent is what you’re thinking right now.

MAEGAN: You’re Superman. Yeah, yeah. I asked a physical therapist about, you know, what music are you listening to when you're working out ‘cause he's really open about his work out life, he's putting it on social media and I'm watching -- Seeing what he's doing. I'm like, “What are you listening to when you're doing that?” And he was like, “Well, for chest day, I have a different playlist than I do for leg day.” You know, and so, that's something that I would encourage too, like, whatever domain of workout that you're doing. You -- It might require a different playlist, it might require more aggressive music for your heavy lifting day, you know. And then for your running, walking, jogging day. It may look a little more relaxed or more like the soundtrack.

ZACH: That makes a lot of sense because you're right. I mean, I have a workout playlist, right? But I mean that's, that's kind of all-encompassing, and sometimes I can’t seem to really fit the mood of what I'm doing. But that's my workout playlist and really put much thought into it. But yeah, really catering it to specifically, kind of just like you cater a workout, catering what you're listening to during workouts does make a lot of sense how it's all connected.

MAEGAN: Yeah, and you don't need a music therapist for that, right? I'm just kind of throwing out things that you’re already doing anyway, and you can make more of it, you know. You can design your own, you can go find someone else's playlist that's been made. The warning that I have about using music and exercise is choosing music that may not get you extremely into your emotions. Like, if there's something that brings back some painful memories, sad memories, something like that. If you don't wanna go there during your workout, then don't put that in your playlist. But you may want to go there.

ZACH: Tap into that.

MAEGAN: Yeah, sometimes if I'm doing a run, I do wanna go into my sadness, and work out and analyze some things. So, I will purposefully put on a sad song, but it's like, you got to be mindful about that. So, just making the choice before you start, know what you're getting into when you put on a song.

ZACH: Now, do you have a favorite genre of music you listen to when you're working out on your playlist?

MAEGAN: Oh man. I have so many. They're all over the place, but I definitely, like, I come from the world of, you know, that classic rock like, post punk music. So, a lot of that old stuff and then metal. I listen to a lot of progressive metal, or like really intense screaming metal, anything aggressive that can get me going. And then I also like really chill lo-fi beats, and like Red Hot Chili Peppers. You know, something with a good groove or baseline will help me get in good cadence for jogging or running.

ZACH: Yeah, that's awesome. Yeah, for me like I again, going back to the soundtracks. I kind of like some Hans Zimmer some stuff like that. Really kind of get you going in the right mindset. But you're right that, again, certain songs for certain situations and don't be afraid to mix it up, I guess either.

MAEGAN: That's what I'm saying. Yeah. Like I can go into the Coldplay realm and then switch right over to Michael Jackson or something.

ZACH: So, obviously Maegan is talking a lot about music when you're exercising. And like I mentioned earlier when we’re in one these group workouts, and they're playing music and I can really feel like the getting in sync with the music and kind of keeping you going especially if you're on the treadmill. And you’re like, oh, I gotta keep going. That helps push you through and when you get into the rhythm. But when I do, like self-workouts sometimes I’ll like, you know, I listen like a podcast or something, and I can kind of see how okay, that's not really getting me the juice that I need to get through this workout.

KATIE: Yeah, I think it's been interesting to hear Maegan explain what music is like doing in your brain because I kind of have thrown -- I have workout playlists, I have a big -- I have one. I have a big workout playlist and I kind of just -- Anytime I'm listening to a song that I'm like, oh, this would be good for my workouts. I like just toss it in there and then I just mix. I mix everything when I'm working out and I'm realizing that the way she's describing it. I need to actually probably be putting more effort into curating, like some playlists, maybe for different workouts, and things like that. Rather than just one big dump of a playlist, and I just like skip around. ‘Cause you know, hearing her talk about how like your body is anticipating the beat and stuff like that. So like, early in my workouts, I probably need some slower stuff then when I'm like 20 minutes on the elliptical at like the resistance seven and I'm miserable like that's when I need like, my like, really crazy music I have right now. So, it’s been very interesting to hear a talk about that. What are your workout playlists like?

ZACH: Well, I’ve got a lot of movie soundtracks.

KATIE: Okay, I like movie soundtracks, but sometimes they're kind of slow and like, you know, I mean.

ZACH: It's got to be just the right track. You can't just play the whole soundtrack you have selective tracks.

KATIE: Yeah. Good for like a warmup or cool down, I guess.

ZACH: Yeah, a lot of Hans Zimmer.

KATIE: Love Hans Zimmer. Saw him in concert couple years ago.

ZACH: Oh, that’s cool.

KATIE: Yeah. It was amazing. I would see him like every year. What I like about movie scores when working out is they, like, bring a big emotion, and sometimes it takes a lot of emotion to finish a workout. And so, it's like I can latch onto just like this big energy and these big emotions, and like get this thing done.

ZACH: Kind of a middle ground for me is Daft Punk.

KATIE: Okay.

ZACH: And I their only movie soundtrack is with Tron, but obviously, there are other songs.

KATIE: I was about to say the only Daft Punk songs I can think of are on the Tron soundtrack. So, also great soundtrack that I do work out to.

ZACH: Harder, better, faster, stronger, that's like, that's a Daft Punk song. Yeah, that's like oh, that's tailor-made for a work out.

KATIE: I mean I'm aware of the song, I just -- I don't know for whatever reason, I just never thought about it for working out.

ZACH: You a fan of the Rocky movies?

KATIE: I mean, out of all the sports movies, like it's not the top for me, but I can appreciate -- I see where this is going.

ZACH: There was a lot of great music in there, right?

KATIE: Yeah.

ZACH: There's “Gonna Fly Now”, right. That's by Bill Conti, he does the musical score of the Rocky movies, but “Eye of The Tiger” by Survivor.

KATIE: Yeah, classic.

ZACH: That’s a like classic workout montage music. And then that’s where my mind goes like, you are Rocky Balboa or Apollo Creed. You're doing this training montage. That's the goal.

KATIE: You're climbing the mountain.

ZACH: Right. The stairs and all that stuff. And so, that’s kind of -- that's the kind of stuff that helps me visualize, instead of just like, man, my muscles are aching. Why am I even doing this? Like if you can focus in on something like that, that kind of music helps me visualize, like where I want to be, and what my goals are.

KATIE: That's a really interesting point. I hadn't ever really thought of it like that. I guess when I'm listening, it's more of just like, I'm trying to -- I also like try to turn up the volume a lot ‘cause I'm like, that'll make me work out harder, which as she's been talking, it's like okay, no, it's less about the volume, it's more about the pace and the beat. My favorite workout songs are like, I love Florence and the Machine. She's got some great songs for like working out, I think, like, Shake It Out and Dog Days Are Over are two, like for me, classic workout songs. So, those are kind of more what I like. Maybe not quite like as mainstream, but I have realized that I don't typically listen to pop music, but for working out like pop music is actually pretty good.

ZACH: Yeah, and that's what I've experienced in these group settings and class workouts. It’s like a mix of things I've never heard of, but the beat really works. And then when a song comes up that I do know, I’m like, oh yeah, that one I kind of like. Oh, I know that one. And it's a nice mix there. So no, I think it's really essential that connection is undeniable between -- And she went through all the science of it as well.

KATIE: It was so cool.

ZACH: Yeah, about the brain and all that sort of thing. And it's so interesting that you can apply things that have really been developed for physical therapy, and obviously Maegan talked a lot about that. But applying those to non-physical therapy situations because it's the same logic, it's the same processes. They can just have different applications.

KATIE: Yeah, absolutely. I think it's really cool and, you know, she's an expert in that area. And so, you know, Zach, one thing I think that was really fun for us. And I think will be really fun for our listeners. Is we asked Maegan to make us a playlist, a workout playlist. Curate one for us based on like a big collection of our favorite songs.

ZACH: Yeah, we all submitted some of our favorite songs, and I think the key for this is she's gonna take all the songs we gave her and put them in kind of an order. It's like when you're building like a baseball lineup, right? You want a certain batter to come up at a certain time, you want a certain song to come up at a certain time during your exercise. And I think that's something, as you mentioned, and I feel the same way. I feel like for a lot of people, it doesn't even occur to them that you need to have a warmup or cool down. You just can't -- You can't go from 0 to 60 to 0. I mean, that is why in a proper workout, you have kind of a cool down phase, you just don't hit the brakes and say, okay, great, have a nice night everybody. Like, by the way, if you're in a class or working out for yourself, and you're not like doing that. If you’re not stretching or anything at the end, please do. Cause it’s gonna help.

KATIE: I think that’s also what I like about this too, is when the playlist kinda forces you to warm up and cool down. It means you kinda have to do those things that we should be doing anyways. Because I can attest to, as I’ve gotten older, warmup and cool down is so important. I'm kind of like in my mid-30’s, right now. I used to never warm up or cool down. If I don't stretch after working out, I will be just like achy the next couple of days. So, I like now having a -- I'll have a playlist that like, enforces these things for me. So, that's another kind of cool aspect of it.

ZACH: All right we'll be back with more with Maegan Morrow after the break.

[Music plays to signal a brief interjection in the interview]

Announcer: From annual checkups to managing chronic conditions, your healthcare should be personalized to you. At Houston Methodist, our primary care doctors provide customized care for you and your family with more than 40 convenient locations across Greater Houston. We offer a variety of ways to get care, from in-person and virtual appointments to same day visits when you're sick. Choose your doctor and schedule online at Houston Methodist, leading medicine. 

[Music ends signals return to the interview]

ZACH: And we're back with Maegan Morrow. So, we're talking a lot about, you know, high energy music to get you through workouts, push you over the edge that sort of thing, right? On the other end of the spectrum -- And my research found that cortisol levels, post workout, if you listen to soothing music that can actually decrease your cortisol levels which helps you recover from workouts.

MAEGAN: Exactly, that's the reason why you may decrease that cadence when you're coming into that post workout and helping you maybe go into entrainment for deep breathing. So, there's a lot of research on that side for meditation and mindfulness, and just using your own breath to regulate your bodily needs and your breath support and your heart rate. And so, what better than to pair it with something that might help you get there, some relaxing music. Maybe something that is one single instrument, or something that's a lot more open where there isn't really a pulse anymore. Or chord structure, or even lyrics. It might just be something that's almost like very ethereal sounding, you know? And so, it can bring your mind into a state of peace and almost like you're in a meditative state.

ZACH: You did mention breathing there. That's something to think about too like, do you breathe with the beat me when you listening to this music or like, you know in -- Because, you know, people wanna say, you know, inhale, exhale, nose, mouth that sort of thing. Like is there a certain breathing technique you should be doing as you're listening to all these songs?

MAEGAN: So, just like I was talking about with the rhythm affecting your brain and moving your body where you're sort of like entraining to that beat. Your brain is picking up on those beats, but it’s – It’s not gonna be like exactly on the beat, it’s trying to perceive and catch up to that rhythm stimulus. And so, you're running and trying to run to that beat, but your breath work can also be intrinsically entraining to it as well. It's almost like that deeper part of your brain is thinking for you and those higher regions of your brain are not having to figure something out and count it necessarily. But when you do start to transition, and slow down and want to relax, because your body is still amped up like that, you may have to you know, tap into those frontal areas of your brain, and start to force yourself to breathe with the music. Make sure -- And change the music to something medium paced.

ZACH: Yeah. Manageable.

MAEGAN: And then you change it to the slower pace, but you might have to talk to yourself and count with yourself to breathe with the rhythm. So, it's almost like you're conducting your own breathwork into matching. So, yeah, there's a little bit of that frontal higher-level thinking happening, and the lower brain trying to entrain with that rhythm as well. So, you're right, it’s like it's breath rhythm, it’s heart rhythm, and it’s motor rhythm. It's all happening and it's not necessarily us having to analyze and think about it. The music that you set up or your techniques for breathing and counting may be doing the work for you.

ZACH: I've experienced that when I'm exercising. Like okay, like I gotta slow this down. And at the same sort of coordinating everything. That's what it is, coordination, right? That’s what it’s all about.

MAEGAN: Exactly. And I'm glad you brought up stress too because there's something about our body, when we're walking, our eye systems are having to subconsciously -- They're looking left to right as we walk. So that's actually helpful when you're moving, it actually deactivates that area in your brain called the amygdala, which is your fight, or flight, or freeze area, that controls fear, and things like that. So, movement can actually decrease and deactivate that area. So if you're having a lot of stress or anxiety or even depression, it's going to help lower that and deactivate that.

ZACH: So big surprise, I like listening to podcasts, not only do I like hosting podcasts, I like listening to podcasts. So, when I'm -- You know, sometimes I’m exercising I’m like, oh, it’s a good time to listen to a podcast, right?


ZACH: We're talking about all this beat per minute and thing, and I'm like -- I'm listening to like one or two people talk in a pretty medium energy pace. Like is that good, bad, indifferent to a workout.

MAEGAN: You know, I think it's great. I don't think it's about the rhythm of their conversation. It's more about the subject matter at that point. If it's something that's enlightening to you or invigorating, or, you know, just kind of playing with your emotions, it may cause you to go faster or to slow down and stop and think about it.

ZACH: Maybe something that keeps you engaged.

MAEGAN: Yeah, as long as it's like engaging you and not like pulling your emotions around, I think it's fine. Actually, Dr. Volpi here at Houston Methodist did some research on the brain with the Center for Performing Arts Medicine, where they looked at the brain, while it was listening to different things like that. So, I was actually in that study, many years ago, I just like volunteered ‘cause I wanted to see what happens, you know, when I'm listening to my favorite music. And they had me listening to an audio passage, someone reading a book, and then someone playing a song that I've never heard from another culture, you know, different types of sounds. And then they played my favorite song from the Foo Fighters and it really showed the difference of where the blood flow is going in the brain. So, when I was listening to the audiobook, it was like only one side of my brain was really lighting up, you know? But when I listened to that music, that really invigorates the motor system, ‘cause it's like beat salient, and it has all these other elements going on affecting my memory, and my emotions, and that sort of thing. My entire brain is working now, it's a whole brain exercise. So, it's like if you want to, you know, use it to the fullest to help you in whatever you're doing, put on the music, it may help you a little bit better. You know, I'm gonna be a music snob, I'm going to say that. But it's not -- It's not like it's bad to listen to the audio book. It's really good too. I do that as well. But, you know, use it whenever you think it's the right time.

ZACH: So, people can listen to this podcast while they’re working out, is what you’re saying?

MAEGAN: Exactly.

ZACH: Great.


ZACH: So, you mentioned your music interests, Foo Fighters, you've mentioned a couple times now. Do you have a favorite Foo Fighters song?

MAEGAN:  Oh man, that’s so hard. There're so many of ‘em that are favorites, you know? But whenever I was in that FMRI, I remember I chose a favorite of theirs because it was something that I had experienced at Austin City Limits Festival.

ZACH: Okay.

MAEGAN: And it always reminds me of standing outside in a crowd of people, and just having that the overwhelming, you know, joy of being in the audience, and rocking out, and that song is called, “What Did I Do?”

ZACH: Okay.

MAEGAN: It's a collaboration with an Austin Blues artist.

ZACH: Okay.

MAEGAN: So, it was even more special, and he had brought him up on the stage to play. So, I'll always remember that.

ZACH: No, that's really cool. And you mentioned earlier about earlier about this escape, or putting yourself in a different mindset, or even in a different place listening to this music, and that’s what music is, right? Music can really transport you to different places in ways that any other mediums really can't, right.

MAEGAN: Exactly.

ZACH: You remember where the first time like you said. You were at that place when they first played that song, and that collaboration that takes you back there every time you listen to it. And, you know, when you're listening to something from a favorite movie or you know, a favorite soundtrack you listened to when you were a teenager or something, that nostalgia can really -- It's a really powerful thing that can really take over, and help you achieve your goals, sometimes. You can push out the pain of the workout by kind of embracing that warm feeling of nostalgia.

MAEGAN: Yeah and, you know, that's why it’s so important to bring it back to the hospital setting and a patient of mine sitting in the ICU and going through something really, you know, scary and new in their life. And being able to help them, pull them out of there in their head. Listening to music that they love can bring back those powerful meaningful memories of nostalgia maybe, and just pull them out of that hospital for a little while, you know, and help ‘em to feel comforted and normal again.

ZACH: Absolutely. And sorry – are there any other takeaways that you have for how we can best use music to aid, not only in our workouts, but in our cool downs like for the longtime gym goers, or our lapsed exercisers, or people who are just getting started on a workout journey.

MAEGAN: Yeah, I think that don't be afraid to use music. Make your own playlist, you know, you can ask Google and all of these apps that I'm talking about. Or you can get with a friend to help you -- Or a coach to kind of help you do this. And I think a lot of wellness coaches and physical therapists are even embracing these music practices now. It's been made known to the masses and I appreciate you kind of getting that word out as well. Also, that it's important to move even if you think, “Well, I'm not a musician. I can't make this kind of thing myself, or I'm not an athlete, I don't work out that way. I'm not a marathon person. I don't need that.” You know, all of this is intrinsically for all humans. We all need to be moving, taking care of our stress, and let's use whatever we can that is natural to us to help us move forward and to complete those goals.

ZACH: Well, that’s a great message. Thanks so much for your time today.

MAEGAN: Yeah, thanks for having me.

[Sound effect signals the end of the interview]


KATIE: I thought it was really interesting how she mentioned that it's more of the cadence and the beats per minute of the music that's important when you're sort of trying to get your brain engaged in a workout than volume. ‘Cause I don't know about you Zach, but I have lived my whole life trying to crank the volume up when things get rough thinking, like, “Oh this is what I like, it's getting intense. Now, I gotta crank the volume up.” Prior to this, that's kind of what I assumed would get me like, more engaged in my work out and like, ready for this tough thing. And I'm realizing that was very wrong. And honestly, not great for my ears, which I knew, but I was like, but I need it. And also, I use earbuds and they actually limit how high you can go. And there have been times recently where I'm like, this is not enough volume to get me through this workout, but I'm like now, I've learned no, the volume’s fine, it doesn't matter. It's actually the beats per -- Maybe I need to pick a different song.

ZACH: Well even -- Did you ever worry about -- Do you go jogging on like the street or anything or -- ‘cause I would be worried about -- And that's why I mentioned it in my conversation with Maegan, like being aware of your surroundings.

KATIE: Yeah, that's a good point.

ZACH: Maybe just one earbud in, ‘cause you can really get lost in what you're listening to, because there's a lot of noise cancellation now. So, they've been times where like, oh, wow, that was going on right there. Like, I just want to be aware of, like, I don't know, bikes driving by or cars you know what I mean.

KATIE: Cars yeah, I mean, yeah, we live in a very busy city. So, yeah, for me, going out for a run, it's not treacherous, but like, I certainly get nervous about turning the volume up too loud when I'm out for a run. I don’t --

ZACH: But you have a workout room, apparently, at home?

KATIE: Yeah, I was about to say, I don't really go out to run very often. As I feel like I've mentioned several times, I'm -- I just like I hurt all the time. So, I stick with very low impact workout. So, weightlifting, row machine, elliptical, which --

ZACH: I love the row machine. I feel like I'm very good at it.

KATIE: I have one at home, it’s the best investment I’ve probably ever made. Zach, the other thing that I found interesting was at the top of the interview when you guys talked about how Maegan uses music in physical therapy. I know that's really specific kind of instance, but that background was so interesting to me. You know, she essentially goes and looks at how someone is walking, and like their cadence and like what kind of beats per minute their body’s like already moving essentially, or the equivalent of that. And then uses songs and music to like get them to do a little bit more and like bring them up tad bit. I thought that was so cool.

ZACH: Yeah, we all walk to the beat of our own drum, right?

KATIE: Nice. Yes.

ZACH: You know, when she mentioned music being a musician herself. That's part of it, right. Especially when I mentioned marching band earlier. Like that was part of like being in sync with the people around you. You have to be ‘cause you're -- You have so much going on. You kind of have to let just fall back into some sort of pattern of like, okay, well I know that I'm going this way, that way, I'm playing this music, I'm looking over here. So, there's a lot you gotta process and then if you do it enough your body just kind of acclimates to it, and it becomes like muscle memory. And that's what she's really trying to train.

KATIE: Yeah. And your brain too -- So, like I bet you -- Like your brain is working like crazy when you're doing marching band and stuff like that.

ZACH: I mean, I haven't done it in a few years, but yeah.

KATIE: It was working like crazy. And, you know, we just talked about dementia last week and it's, you know, dementia prevention and stuff like this, where it's like you're constantly having to use your brain. And as she mentioned, your brain’s having to anticipate the next beat, the next step. And you're also playing an instrument at the same time. So, it's like this stuff -- It's interesting to see how music is kind of -- I've always thought of it as like oh, my workout is my time to listen to music. When really like the music is bringing me more than just like, oh, the physical benefits of working out. Like, my brain’s working and stuff like that. I just think it’s really cool.

ZACH: Right, so save the podcast for a long road trip, but save the playlist, the music playlist for a workout.

KATIE: Yeah, I like both of those tips. Maegan has made us a playlist. To our listeners out there, you guys will be able to enjoy the playlist as well. There will be a link in the show notes so go check it out.

ZACH: Well, that's gonna do it for this week on the On Health podcast, and we encourage you all to go to our blog at and to share, like, and subscribe to our podcast. New episodes drop Tuesday mornings. So, until then stay tuned, and stay healthy.

Categories: Tips to Live By