Great abs, but killer music: Can a gym workout destroy your hearing?

Anyone who has ever walked into a gym or training studio knows that loud music is part of the business, and can help us move, but it can be very harmful over time. Here are all the details.

 A man screams mid-exercise as he focuses during his workout (Illustrative) (photo credit: PIXAHIVE)
A man screams mid-exercise as he focuses during his workout (Illustrative)
(photo credit: PIXAHIVE)

There is a lot of noise in gyms; from different electronics blaring music, from people working out, from background music or music people listen to through headphones to drown out external sounds. 

Many group classes such as spinning, aerobics or Zumba use high-volume music to stimulate people, averaging 93 decibels. The problem is that exposure to such volume for 60 minutes can impair hearing.

A 2019 study conducted at Hadassah College in Jerusalem found that the average noise level in gyms was 95 decibels and an online survey found that 41% of people working out were aware that the volume of music was too high, but only 27% said they wanted to lower it.

A different study examined the hearing thresholds (at 1000-6000 hertz) of people before doing Zumba. 

The average noise level throughout the class was 91 decibels, and researchers found that in 13 of the 16 subjects there was a deviation (hearing loss) of 10 decibels or more in one or both ears in one of the frequencies tested. 

 The pandemic has influenced large segments of the population to exercise (credit: UNSPLASH) The pandemic has influenced large segments of the population to exercise (credit: UNSPLASH)

Additionally, half of the subjects studied reported a ringing in the ears and/or feelings of numbness in the ears following the lesson. 

Despite all this, only one respondent said she was willing to work out with the music at a lower volume. 

A temporary, but alarming, decline

Various studies have shown that, during an exercise, there is a higher risk of hearing loss when compared to exposure to the same amount of noise at rest. 

The explanations are related to an increase in metabolic activity and changes in blood flow and body temperature, among a slew of other factors. This phenomenon, called Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS,) describes a negative change in hearing thresholds caused by exposure to loud noise.

In instances of TTS, one usually feels that things like speech and any surrounding sounds are weaker. It can become difficult to hear sounds that are at a low volume and speech will sound muffled. 

Additionally, there will be a feeling of opacity and pressure in the ears and possibly also tinnitus, a wheezing in the ears. These sensations usually pass within 24 hours, but can also stick around for at least a few days.

Eventually, the hearing thresholds return to their normal state. However, recurrent TTS instances can turn a temporary hearing loss into a permanent state.

In the US, the maximum permissible volume of music in gyms is 85 decibels, and the instructor's voice shouldn’t be louder than 95 decibels. According to guidelines, the instructor should speak at least 10 decibels above the volume of the music so that the people working out can hear. 

In Israel, the maximum volume of music allowed in gyms, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, is 85 decibels.

If you experience music in a workout class that is too loud, here are few options. 

  • Use earplugs;
  • Stand further away from the speakers, if possible;
  • Ask the instructors to turn down the volume. 

For those who want to listen to their own music in the gym, it is recommended to use soundproof headphones to save the amplification designed to overcome the volume of environmental noise.

"People go to the gym with the intention of maintaining their physical and mental health, but most are unaware that while they’re improving their fitness, their hearing may be impaired," said Mira Berlin, a communication clinician at Tradis Gat.  

Hearing impairment has many implications for our quality of life, she explained, as well as our ability to be in touch with other people, and even our cognitive abilities as we age.