Top Ten Surprisingly Effective Exercise Songs
ecently, at stately Stylus Manor, we had a friendly discussion about the use of music as a boost to exercise; the athletes that comprise the Stylus staff have varied preferred methods of keeping fit and trim and likewise we have differing tastes in music during those activities, from “nature's music” (damn hippies) to pounding high-NRG. When I grapple with the stationary bike I rely on a finely calibrated playlist of close to 300 songs stored on my iPod, shuffled into random order and skipped through on a whim, depending on how many of my oats I'm feeling that afternoon. The effect is almost akin to a performance enhancing drug; it's not that I can't exercise without it, but the RPM and intensity I am capable of increase markedly with it. Very early on I discovered that the key wasn't so much volume and guitar noise as it was BPM and intensity. Still, as much as I have a few chestnuts I can always count on to do the job (the Futureheads' cover of “Hounds of Love,” Primal Scream's “Accelerator,” Andrew WK), I always try new songs, and some of the ones I've dropped into the “Exercise” folder with little hope of seeing a significant return from have become staples. These, then, are the songs I tried on a whim, expecting my finger to find the skip button halfway through, that have stuck around to continue raising my heart rate.
10. The Wrens - “Hopeless”
A five minute dirge about dumping someone—not exactly obvious exercise material. But one of the things I've noticed is that if I love a song enough, and this level of devotion is fairly rare, I'll get so excited about it I start pedaling faster. Given that one of my favorite parts of seeing the Wrens live is always singing (err, yelling) along with the climax of this song—the part that starts with “It just won't be me, ever again”—it's not too surprising that the middle of “Hopeless” is pretty much guaranteed to raise my overall average RPM just by itself.
09. The Arcade Fire - “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”
I'm not exactly a huge Arcade Fire fan, and although the massed voices on the best Funeral songs are certainly rousing, it didn't feel fast enough to power proper exercise. But I was overlooking the virtue of constancy; while most songs build and fall, “Power Out” keeps up a steady, steady drum beat that's just quick enough to get a good head of steam building. Sometimes a steady pulse is more important than a huge high.
08. Texas - “Black Eyed Boy”
I tend to think of the Texas I have on my computer as a bit too polished for exercising, and despite the steady tambourine hits of “Black Eyed Boy,” this might not have been effective if not for something I sometimes overlook for exercise: Lyrical content. “Black Eyed Boy” is a vague exhortation aimed at the titular boy, reassuring him that he will find his own “space and time.” Doesn't sound terribly helpful, but the difference between orchestrated album pop that urges you on to anything and the same music talking about broken hearts is apparently the difference that counts when it comes to my stationary bike usage.
07. Guided By Voices - “Game of Pricks”
There are plenty of GBV songs superficially more suited to exercise. The opening builds too slowly, and although it keeps up a steady chug, it never really breaks through into a headlong rush. But, and this is the key, “Game of Pricks” makes me really, really mad. By the time Pollard gets to “You could never be strong, you could only be free / And I never asked for the truth but you owe that to me,” I'm thinking of those that have, in my opinion, wronged me. Petty, baseless, not ever likely to be acted on? Yes. But awfully cathartic.
06. Six By Seven - “So Close”
This one is strictly down to personal context. I love the doomy piano intro, but it should be far too enervating for me to even make it to the part where those massive drums and the pummeling guitar kick in (at which point, admittedly, I'd be fine; but you've got nearly two minutes to wait first). But “So Close” is a song that came out at precisely the right time for me, where when Chris Olley wails “So close to being anything / So close to being more than I have ever been,” the feeling of something, of someone slipping through my fingers was painfully fresh and poignant. Somehow that means that whenever “So Close” hits the iPod I bike faster, but if you look closely I might be grimacing a little, too.
05. Crooked Fingers - “New Drink for the Old Drunk”
This is the least surprising to me in terms of how well I thought it would work but probably the most surprising in terms of how it sounds. Sawing strings, a constant but slow beat and random jangling guitar would not be enough, or even close to it, normally, but this is also my favorite song about drinking, and by the time Eric Bachman is singing “Hours pass by half-forgotten / Night turns black 'cause it's rotten” I'm charged with the wasted energy of a thousand boozy piss-ups. I'm not quite sure why that works, but it does.
04. Ben Folds - “Landed”
Great, propulsive piano pop from Ben Folds—probably the best thing he's ever done. But also way too slow and measured until it hits the crescendo it builds to in the middle of the song to be suitable for exercising, if not for the emotional ferocity of “Landed.” On some level, Folds is incredibly angry at the person he wasted years with. thanks to deception and neurosis—furious at the time he's spent not doing what he should and being with who he should. And that may not be a situation I've ever found myself in, but it makes me pedal really fast nonetheless. By the time he hits “When I opened my eyes and walked out the door” I'm chock full of adrenaline.
03. Mclusky - “Alan Is a Cowboy Killer”
Unlike the last, oh, five songs, I have little emotional connection to “Alan Is a Cowboy Killer.” I mean, I admire how neatly Andy Falkous sums up the way victimizers always seek to deflect blame by having his psychotic protagonist say “in your statement to the press, tell them how you turned me on,” and the parts where he shouts out the title like he's being strangled as the guitar go nuts are certainly conducive to going faster. But quiet/loud songs are usually deadly on the bike, unless you can skip to the loud part. The real key here is the drums. Not too fast, and not too fancy, but some reason they go at the exact rhythm I need to bike at, and so even during the muted opening of this song I'm able to kick it up a notch. The end just increases the tempo by a couple of extra orders of magnitude.
02. The Strokes - “What Ever Happened?”
This has more to do with conditioning than anything else. Yes, I'm pedaling at the tempo of those furiously strummed guitars rather than the kind of lackadaisical beat, but the whole thing, like “Game of Pricks,” never really takes off. But before I got my iPod, I had to make do with individual albums, surprisingly few of which contain enough material suitable for exercising. Room on Fire comes pretty close, especially if I hit repeat on “The End Has No End,” and so I've gotten so used to starting my exercise with “What Ever Happened?” that even if it comes up half an hour in I get a surge of fresh energy.
01. Gwen Stefani - “What You Waiting For (Jacques Lu Cont Remix)”
Let's see; eight minutes long, a prolonged quiet section in the middle, starting with the sound of a ticking clock... this should be death for exercise. But I'm nuts for the synth sound, that “tick tock” is just fast enough to bike to, and few things make me determined to go as far and as fast as I can as someone berating me, strangely enough. She's talking about her million dollar contract, but all I'm really hearing is “What, you're going to give up already? Eight more minutes, loser.” Which would be horrible for my self-esteem if I was taking it seriously, but helps immeasurably when you’re just trying to prove to the machine that yes, this time you will be able to do one more quarter-mile in the same time it took you last time.