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Your Gym May Be Harming Your Hearing

Spin class

What’s good for your body is not necessarily good for your ears. Loud music is an integral part of many workout activities — spin classes are a prime example. A recent article in the New York Times found that the noise levels in a spin class at Crunch averaged 100 decibels over 40 minutes, and hit 105 decibels in its loudest five minutes. A staffer for the Hearing Health Foundation found that the decibel level at her gym hit 115 decibels. You can easily measure decibel levels using an app on your smartphone. The one I use is dBMeterPro.

NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, says exposure to 100 decibels  can cause permanent hearing damage after just 15 minutes (total, not continuous) per day of exposure. The recommended exposure at 115 decibels is 28 seconds. Nevertheless, instructors — who experience the greatest exposure, and therefore are at greatest risk — often like loud music. One Australian study found that 85 percent of instructors found it motivating.

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And science tells us that it is. Researcher Costas Karageorghis has been studying the effects of music on physical performance for more than 25 years. In a 2011 article he (and co-authors) wrote that music improves exercise performance by either reducing fatigue or increasing work capacity. “Typically, this results in higher-than-expected levels of endurance, power, productivity or strength,” the authors wrote. Karageorghis adds that music is especially beneficial in medical rehabilitation settings where exercise plays a role.

What music does he recommend? It should be “congruent with the socio-cultural background and age group of listeners.” The rhythm should approximate the rhythm of the activity. The tempo should range from 125 to 140 beats per minute. Lyrics should be affirmative: for instance, “run to the beat,” or “the only way is up.” In my book,  Shouting Won’t Help, I discussed workout music recommendations from various experts who mentioned everyone from Rihanna to LL Cool J to the theme song from Rocky. Composer Bill Conti, creator of the Rocky theme, pointed out that music has always inspired performance. The Greeks went into battle listening to music in the Dorian mode, he said. “I can only imagine some Greek guy said, ‘This works.’ ”

So music — usually loud, although Karageorghis does not specifically mention decibel level — will improve your workout. But at the expense of your ears. Readers, especially those who work in the field of hearing health, will expect me now to suggest turning down the music. I don’t. (Well, maybe that Crunch gym in the Times article is too loud.) If you want to wreck your hearing, that’s your choice.

What I do suggest is that you get yourself a good pair of earplugs and stay away from the speakers. If you’re wearing earbuds because you like your own music better than what’s coming over the gym speakers, don’t turn them up so loud that they drown out the gym music. Google “best workout headphones” and you’ll find a large variety at different price levels and for different kinds of workouts.

Don’t give up the gym, but don’t give up your hearing, either.

Photo: technotr/istock

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