Expert Doctors Say Your Gym May Be Causing a Silent Health Problem

Updated: Jun. 09, 2024

Audiologists are turning up the volume on an often-overlooked health risk, with essential tips to keep your workouts both energized and easy on your ears.

If you’ve ever compared your workout with music to a workout without it, you’ve probably experienced how a pulse-pounding beat can help fuel your effort. And when you step into the group fitness studio, music contributes to the swell of adrenaline and synchronized movement that boosts a sense of belonging, possibly translating to a fiercer workout. Research from 2020 backed this up, revealing how the communal vibe of group fitness classes motivates attendees to dig deeper and amplifies the enjoyment of classes.

A healthier heart, improved mood, and sharper mental focus are just a few of the well-documented benefits of exercise. However, as you lace up for another heart-racing class, it’s essential to tune into a less talked about but equally vital aspect of your health: Your hearing.

Safe sound levels

A safe sound level depends on both the intensity of the sound and the duration of exposure to the sound. “As a general guideline,” says Brian Taylor, AuD, an audiologist and senior director of audiology at Signia, “sound levels should not exceed 85 dBA to prevent harm.” Meanwhile, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) states: “You can listen to sounds at 70 dBA or lower for as long as you want.”

Daniel Troast, AuD, an audiologist at HearUSA, explains that while 85 dBA might be manageable for up to eight hours, a mere increase to 88 dBA shortens the safe exposure window to four hours. At 91 dBA, you’re down to just two hours.

But, says Dr. Troast, group fitness classes often play music at levels well over 85 to 90 decibels (dBA) for an hour, exceeding the recommended limits from the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety.

Even at an hour or less, there’s a risk of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). Noise-induced hearing loss is caused by exposure to loud sounds, whether short-lived or prolonged, which cause damage to the inner ear’s delicate structures. This is a condition all too common in environments where the beat runs loud, and instructors need to amplify their voices to be heard over it…often shouting at certain points to maximize the motivational effect. Many a fitness class cranks it up well beyond the safe levels, especially ┬áindoor cycling classes which can reach decibel levels in the 100 to 110 range, according to research at George Mason University.

Keep reading to discover expert-backed strategies to keep your hearing in check without missing a move.

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How to protect your hearing in a fitness class

The first step to protecting your ears is to pick out a pair of hearing protection devices that don’t compromise comfort. “So-called musician’s earplugs are a great choice for someone who is frequently exercising in a gym with loud music,” Dr. Taylor says. “These earplugs maintain sound quality while reducing volume, making them ideal for individuals who frequent classes with loud music.”

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Dr. Troast also offers some additional tips to keep your hearing sharp:

  • Limit loud class participation: Be conscious of how often you join classes where the volume is turned up high.

  • Maintain distance from speakers: Opt for a spot farther from the speakers to minimize exposure to booming bass and treble.

  • Take quiet breaks: Use breaks to step into a quieter space, allowing your ears to rest.

  • Speak up: If the music’s too loud for comfort, don’t shy away from discussing it with your instructor or gym management.

  • Heed warning signs: Ear discomfort or tinnitus (ringing) are red flags that the volume might be too high.

  • Schedule regular hearing check-ups: “On average, adults with no hearing concerns should get their hearing checked every three years,” says Dr. Troast. For gym-goers often in loud environments, an annual hearing evaluation or following your audiologist’s advice is advisable.

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Breaking the stigma on hearing aids

A significant hurdle to overcome in hearing health is the stigma attached to traditional hearing aids, which deters many of the 48 million Americans with hearing loss from seeking help. Only about one in five people who could benefit from a hearing aid use one. Dr. Taylor says new innovations in the hearing aid industry are challenging this stigma by designing hearing aids that are not only effective but stylish, encouraging users to wear them with confidence.

Dr. Troast echoes: “Because hearing properly is tied into so much of your overall mental, cognitive, and physical health, hearing aids are starting to reflect that as well.”

With advancements in hearing aid technology, barriers to staying active while managing hearing loss are quickly disappearing. Whether you’re cycling, hiking, or enjoying a game of pickleball, hearing aids are becoming a more common and accepted part of active lifestyles.

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