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Why Your Group Fitness Instructor Is Really A DJ

One writer details the harmony between music and exercise.

I used to love making workout playlists—they reminded me of the mix tapes I would put together after a break up. First, you warm up with carefree tunes to mark the happy beginning, then you build up to heavy (read: angry) songs to push you through the pain, and then you finish it off with a little power pop to celebrate how you’re stronger now than you were before.

But, as life got busier, I had less time to make them—and fewer nights out at bars and clubs to discover new bands to add to my collection. My playlists soon grew so stale they were making me dread my runs, so I signed up for indoor cycling to get me out of my rut. One class a week turned into four, and next thing I knew I looked forward to going to the gym just to hear what songs my instructors would play next. Instead of listening to music to work out, I realized I now worked out to discover new music.    

Music’s influence on fitness is nothing new. Countless studies show listening to the right beat can boost your mood, help you work out harder, longer and even make exercise feel easier than it really is. Consider group fitness, specifically, and the connection is deeper still. "One of the reasons music works so well in group fitness is it's incredible power to bond people socially," says Philip Steir, a music producer, certified yoga instructor and a co-founder of Flow Play at Equinox. "From the earliest times, a primary function of music was collective and communal. Music brings people together. In every culture people sing together, dance together, and use music to move and play together."

Playlists are central to the group fitness experience and one of the best motivational tools we have—and instructors know it. "Great music draws people in, grabs them and keeps them coming back for more,” says Craig Hunter, a group fitness instructor and the founder of CycleTherapy at Equinox. “Regardless of how intense the workout is, if the music is not on point and cued well, it becomes a bust."


Hunter considers selecting the right rhythms to be a full-time job, and admits to spending at least 25 hours a week designing the music layout for his classes. He discovers new music online (think blogs, YouTube, Spotify, Beats and iTunes), connects to NYC's top DJs, and attends music conferences. 

Today’s wealth of online music sources has given instructors access to all kinds of songs and remixes they didn’t have before, making it easier to push things musically and create cool, exploratory new playlists. And it’s not just for cardio classes: “Yoga is a musical practice itself, so I have to put together playlists that will build with and flow with the poses,” says Dina Ivas, a Flow Play instructor. Her class mixes include everything from ambient electronic music to a karaoke version of the instrumental to Naughty by Nature’s “O.P.P.” “I love that element of surprise, so I try to keep my song sequencing creative and unexpected,” says Ivas. “I’ve totally caught students Shazaam-ing in my class, so now I post my playlists on Facebook once a week.”

Thanks to instructors like Hunter and Ivas, I’ve now discovered awesome dance tracks by my favorite indie rockers (Tegan & Sara’s “Body Work”), renewed love for old favorites (Beastie Boys “Sabotage”) and even learned I’m a closet Selena Gomez fan (“Come & Get It” is really catchy). The best part: I can trust my instructors to mix up the music before it has a chance to get old. All I have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

Need new music? Check out playlists from Craig, Philip and more Equinox instructors on BeatsMusic.com.