If you have ever been to a fitness class, chances are you know just how loud the environment can get. But you might not have thought twice about the noise levels. After all, music is a great way to set the tone for the upcoming workout and fill you with energy and drive. However, amidst the energizing atmosphere and pulsating beats, there's a growing concern regarding the potential harm to one's hearing.
That’s why we spoke with Ludwig Henderson, a certified personal trainer on the staff at Texas Health Fitness Center Dallas, to get his insight on the risks and what you can do to protect your hearing.
Understanding the Risks
Music is an important element in fitness classes. It helps create the vibe, set the pace and motivate. Let’s not forget it adds an element of fun to a workout. While this environment can be exhilarating, it often translates to high noise levels, something you may underestimate until a smartwatch alerts you, or you walk out of a class with ringing in your ears or a noticeable muffle.
“Certain classes such as Zumba, indoor cycling, HIIT, and even aquatic classes, tend to use a high volume to set the tone and motivate participants,” Henderson explains. “However, I think most of the participants and even instructors are unaware of the permanent damage that loud music can cause. There’s even a risk of causing seizures in certain populations. I’ve personally stepped out of classes due to extremely high volume. It can have an encouraging effect, but also a discouraging effect if it’s too much.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that exposure to noise levels above 85 decibels (dB) for prolonged periods can lead to hearing impairment. However, according to research from George Mason University in Virginia, many fitness classes average noise levels well over 90 dB, with some between 100 to 110 decibels. For context, this is around the level of a rock concert or chainsaw, which can cause permanent hearing damage.
Over time, listening to loud sounds at high dB levels can cause hearing loss—or other hearing problems like a ringing or buzzing sound in your ear that won’t go away. The louder a sound is, and the longer you are exposed to it, the more likely it will damage your hearing. The more often you are exposed to loud sounds over time, the more damage occurs.
To make matters worse, hearing loss often gets worse for years before anyone notices or diagnoses it. About 24% of people ages 20-69 who report having excellent hearing have measurable hearing damage. Additionally, less than half (46%) of adults who reported trouble hearing had seen a health care provider for their hearing in the past 5 years.
How Hearing Loss Occurs
Hearing loss can result from a single loud sound (like firecrackers) near your ear. But more often, hearing loss results over time from damage caused by repeated exposure to loud sounds. The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for hearing loss to occur. The longer the exposure, the greater the risk for hearing loss (especially when hearing protection is not used or there is not enough time for the ears to rest between exposures).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend maintaining environmental noises below 70 dB over 24 hours, or 75 dB over 8 hours, to prevent noise-induced hearing loss. For reference, the sound of the average washing machine or dishwasher registers at around 70 dB.
However, your risk of hearing loss increases substantially after 80 dB. Exposure to 80-85 dB over the course of two hours can cause hearing damage. Gas-powered lawnmowers and leaf blowers are common everyday sound exposures that register at this level.
At 95 dB, it takes around 50 minutes of exposure to cause hearing damage, including hearing loss. This is equivalent to the sound a motorcycle would register.
As you hit 100 dB, exposure time significantly drops, with hearing loss occurring after just 15 minutes. That time drops to just 5 minutes between 105-110 dB. For reference, many sporting events and loud entertainment venues commonly register between these decibels. This is also the maximum volume level for personal listening devices, such as radios, televisions, and phones.
Remember, we stated that many fitness classes have noise levels well above 90 dB. With the average class time between 45 minutes to an hour, your risk of being exposed to damaging sound levels over the course of a class is completely within the realm of possibility. That’s why Henderson notes wearing ear protection is so important.
“The recommendation is to keep sound levels at 85 decibels, but I don't think the majority of fitness clubs follow the recommendation,” he adds. “I personally recommend earplugs; they protect from the loud noise but still allow you to enjoy and feel the beat.”
What Type of Earplugs Should I Look For?
There are many types of earplugs you can use to help protect your ears from prolonged loud noises.
The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) is a common method for expressing values of noise reduction provided by different types of hearing protectors. The NRR ranges from 0 to approximately 30, with higher values indicating greater amounts of noise reduction. The higher the NRR number associated with a hearing protector, the greater the potential for noise reduction.
Since the typical fitness class can float between 90 to 110 dB, you should look for earplugs with a high NRR. If you have a smart device that has alerted you to sound levels before in these classes, you may have a better understanding of how loud your particular fitness environment is, and that can help inform what noise reduction rating will work for you.
Remember, while even the highest-rated earplugs (30 NRR) will drop you to 80 dB if your class peaks to 110 decibels, you would have to be exposed for at least two hours to cause hearing damage, which is usually well over the time you’d be in the fitness class.
Beyond NRR, comfort will usually be the biggest determinant in which style of ear plug you use.
How Do I Know the Sound Level is Safe?
The effect of lower noise levels over long periods is the same as louder noise levels over a shorter period. You can use a sound level meter (SLM) to measure noise around you. Free SLMs developed as smartphone apps are available. Some of these apps can predict your maximum allowable daily noise dose, like the NIOSH SLM app developed for iOS devices to help promote better hearing health and prevention efforts. Many smartwatches will also regularly monitor your environment for possibly damaging sound levels.
Noisy fitness classes, while invigorating and motivating, can pose a significant risk to hearing health if proper precautions are not taken. By wearing hearing protection, you can continue to enjoy the benefits of group workouts while safeguarding your long-term auditory well-being.
“Music is to set the tone, enjoy and guide us through the workout,” Henderson explains. “It’s not intended to cause hearing damage and certainly not seizures. Therefore, let's use it for the good of all of us. As instructors, we need to do our part, but it’s also good measure to come prepared as a participant as well.”