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Turn the Volume Down: Hurting Your Body While Trying to Help It


New year’s resolutions so frequently involve health and fitness that it’s become a cliché. For many, January is a month for detoxing from the indulgence of the holidays, and committing to a new workout routine. But while these healthy habits are applauded by the medical community and can have significant and positive long-term effects on overall health, there’s an often overlooked safety concern for gym-goers to bear in mind.

It’s a common sight to see people at the gym wearing headphones or earbuds, whether they’re listening to music, following one of the many workout apps that have recently gained popularity, or tuned into a video on their smartphone. But, whether you’re piling up the miles on a treadmill or lifting weights to bulk up for beach season, experts say it’s important to make sure a commitment to a healthier you includes your ears.

Though many consider music a crucial part of getting through a grueling workout, spending so much time pumping loud sound into the ears can increase the risk of long-term hearing loss. The American Osteopathic Association estimates that one in five teenagers in the United States will experience some form of hearing loss in their lifetime, an increase of almost 30 percent over just two decades ago. Much of that increase, the association says, is due to the increased use of headphones.

The potential harm to hearing isn’t limited to those wearing earbuds – noise levels can also be an issue for people who take classes like Zumba or spin, where the average noise level far exceeds that which is known to cause hearing damage. Some reports indicate noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) can affect as many as 15 percent of adults between 20- and 69-years-old. Although the noise people can be exposed to on job sites – whether it’s an airport tarmac or a noisy bar – accounts for some of these problems, the trend of increased NIHL in younger adults points to a connection with non-work related causes.

Exposure to loud noises for a prolonged period of time can lead to what’s called a temporary threshold shift (TTS). Though people respond to noise levels differently, depending on the noise level and the length of exposure to the noise, noticeable drops in frequencies and other symptoms such as a ringing in the ears could be preliminary indications of damage. After a few hours, those symptoms will dissipate, but with repeated exposure, TTS can turn into a permanent change in hearing, known as a permanent threshold shift (PTS), from which hearing does not recover.

“Think of it like a small hole in your clothes,” said Linda Ronis Kass, AuD, an audiologist in Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery. “At first you can ignore it, but the more you stretch the fabric, the larger the hole gets.”

Guidelines from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) state that sound below 85 decibels is not a danger if exposure is  than eight hours. But anything louder could be, especially when the exposure is prolonged. So, for those who like to turn their volume up to 11, this likely means a reassessment is in order. The average mobile device can go up to a volume of 120 decibels, which is just below the noise a military jet makes at take-off. At that level, Ronis Kass said hearing damage can begin in 15 minutes or less, far shorter than the length of the average workout.

“If you leave a loud place and your ears are ringing, that’s a warning sign,” Ronis Kass said. “Other signs of potential damage include having difficulty understanding people in noisy places, hearing sounds as muffled, or feeling like your ears are plugged. Unfortunately, the damage accumulates over time, so the worst damage will likely happen without people even realizing it.”

Experts recommend what they call the 60/60 rule. Keep your volume at 60 percent of your device’s maximum and limiting listening to less than 60 minutes at a time before taking a break. There are also several online tools to help calculate the decibel level of specific headphones.

Turning down the volume on headphones is one way to take care of your ears, but for those taking classes, usually held in exercise rooms with music blasting and an instructor encouraging students through a microphone, alternate solutions are necessary.

On a recent trip to a gym in South Jersey, I used a mobile app that measures noise levels to determine that the average class had a volume of 100 decibels. It’s an unscientific experiment, but that noise level is the equivalent of riding in a helicopter, something that would always require headphones. More than just the attendees, there’s a concern for the instructors themselves. Classes usually last 30 to 60 minutes, easily long enough to damage hearing over time. While that’s bad enough for someone who might take the class one or two times a week, it’s exponentially worse for instructors who can be in this environment multiple times per day.

“It should really be viewed as a workplace safety issue, and there are Occupational Health and Safety Administration guidelines for this exact situation,” Ronis Kass said.

The OSHA guidelines specify how long a worker can be exposed to a specific level of noise before putting on protection to avoid damage. The formula follows an “X number of minutes in Y number of decibels” type of process. OSHA estimates the U.S. spends $242 million each year in costs associated with hearing loss. But while people who work around planes and engines and factory equipment think of their ears as part of their job safety, it’s an association rarely made for fitness instructors or during workouts in general.

Ronis Kass says there are important steps you can take to protect yourself. In classes, she suggests positioning yourself as far away from the speakers as possible to reduce the level of exposure. She also suggests downloading an app that reads noise levels and showing it to the instructor, encouraging her or him to turn things down.

“If you’re a regular in classes, or if you’re an instructor, you may want to buy ear plugs or have impressions made for custom earmolds, which are made to retain the sound quality of music but which reduce overall noise,” Ronis Kass said.

Overall, Ronis Kass says it’s important to use common sense. If your ears are ringing, or if you have your volume up so loud that you can’t hear anyone around you, it’s a sure sign the noise is too much and you need to give yourself a break or use hearing protection.

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