Is your New Year’s resolution damaging your hearing?
Research confirms that gyms can be dangerous to your health – your hearing health!
As we come out of Christmas hibernation and start to get serious about those resolutions made as last year ended, we are beginning to get the spandex, muscle shirts and sneakers on and heading to the gym.
Our expectation is that if we go to a fitness centre or class, we are engaging in an activity that will (with hard work and sweat) improve our overall health and well-being.
It is certainly generally accepted that exercise and physical activity have substantial health benefits for people of all ages.
But, as shown by SoundPrint’s latest consumer-led research, sound levels in gyms can pose a considerable risk to your hearing, with 34% of gyms surveyed having Loud or Very Loud noise levels.
SoundPrint’s noise guidelines define Loud Noise levels as 76 – 80 decibels, equivalent to standing next to a freeway (76dB) or a garbage disposal (80dB). Those levels are likely safe for hearing in the time frame of exposure expected for gym members, but they will make conversation difficult and can be annoyingly loud for some people.
The Very Loud sound level is defined as anything above 81 decibels. Here you’d be 15 meters away from a freight train (83dB) or next to a blender (88dB). This level is not considered safe for hearing, and exposure can cause hearing loss over time.
The dangers of high noise levels in fitness centres
Would it surprise or alarm you to know that some fitness classes measured sound levels of 99dB – the equivalent of being just 30 metres from a Bell J-2A helicopter taking off?
A 2013 study from the National Acoustic Laboratories compared sound levels in gyms from 1997-1998 to sound levels in 2009-2011.
The study found that noise levels have reduced slightly for low-impact classes, but volumes have gone up for high-intensity classes (like spin or HIIT classes).
The average noise level was 93 decibels (a hairdryer is 90dB), with some classes reaching as high as 99 decibels.
We know that even relatively short-term exposure to noise at these levels can cause hearing damage. The problem is that this hearing damage may not be immediately evident, so it can be easy to ignore the risk. What we do know is that noise-induced hearing loss is real and can be devastating and irreversible.
Gym members are at risk of hearing damage even from the relatively short time they are exposed to these noise levels during their classes or sessions. Importantly, instructors who often do more than one class a day are likely to have even greater exposure to these noise levels.
It’s also important to remember that noise exposure is cumulative. This means if you have other sources of exposure, such as using power tools, lawnmowers or visiting loud bars or clubs, your total exposure will be even greater and your risk increases.
There is no fix for hearing loss. While you may not notice it now it will become increasingly apparent over time. And while hearing aids can help some people improve their hearing, the best option is always prevention.
How can you tell if your gym is too loud?
With the advent of smartphones, it is an easy task to check the noise levels of your gym or class. Several decibels meter apps are available in the Apple App Store and the Android app store, and most are free.
We like SoundPrint as it pairs a measuring functionality with a crowdsourced ranking service. Simply measure the sound level in your gym, and your measurement becomes part of all measurements for that location. Other users of SoundPrint can then search their local area for gyms or other types of public venues like restaurants, bars, nightclubs and cafés, and select one with reasonable or safe sound levels.
What to do if the gym is too loud
If you do find the noise level in your gym or fitness class is too loud, either through measuring with an app or simply because the noise level is uncomfortable, mention it to your instructor.
Some instructors believe the volume of music in a class directly translates to class energy and participants’ overall experience in the class.
However, explain that at 94 decibels, the maximum exposure should be 1 hour before hearing is damaged, and at 100 decibels, only 15 minutes of exposure can cause damage. They may consider reducing the volume a little if they also understand that they are at greater risk of hearing damage since their exposure will likely be greater (in terms of time) than the participants in their classes. If you prompt them to work out how long they are exposed every day, it may highlight how at risk they may be.
It is also worth pointing out that new research from the University of Maryland School of Medicine published in 2021, found that those who attend indoor cycling classes (spinning) do not lower the intensity of their workouts even when the soundtrack volume is reduced to a safer level.
This should be enough to argue that reducing the volume will benefit class attendees by helping protect their hearing while still getting a great workout. The researchers also pointed out that participants actually preferred the reduced sound level during their class.
Critically, over 25% of participants in the study also reported ringing in their ears or muffled hearing after their fitness class.
If, after this, the noise levels are still too loud for you, the next best thing is to bring and wear disposable earplugs. They may not be the most comfortable thing to wear to an exercise class, but if the cost of a fit and healthy body is long-term hearing damage, is it worth it?