“What?” a toned spin instructor yells to a Boot Camp teacher over the gym’s sound system. “Speak louder!” shouts the CrossFit coach to the Zumba teacher, whose ears haven’t stopped buzzing since the last Cumbia.
So goes an imagined conversation between beloved NYC fitness instructors. They could be models of good health, but their reality resembles a joke with an unfortunate punchline: Many of the most athletic people in the industry may be experiencing noise-induced hearing loss, the result of blasting music past the point of safety several times a week.
“Noise is an equal opportunity offender,” said Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist, who has consulted New York City mayors on the consequences of too much clatter. Not only do New Yorkers have to compete with honking, screeching subways and relentless construction, they go to the gym and encounter similar stressors. Today, people in their 40s are likely to report the same hearing issues of adults in their 60s, she said.
A new study by the Centers for Disease Control reveals that 19 percent of people between the ages of 20 and 29 have some hearing loss that—like sun damage—increases with a combination of volume, age and length of exposure.
Unlike strength training, the human ear can’t adapt to excessive loads. Permanent damage may follow regular participation in extremely loud classes. Fitness instructors may be especially vulnerable to the effects of amplified sound, according to a study by Australia’s National Acoustic Laboratories.
Without federal regulations regarding exposure to nonoccupational noise, the Environmental Protections Agency has identified 70 decibels (dBa) over 24 hours (75 dBa over 8 hours) as the average limit for intermittent environmental noise. High-intensity workouts may push to an average of 93.1 dBa, past acceptable levels.
So listen up. You need to advocate for lower volumes in your health club—especially to support your best instructors who greet you each day and care about your well being.
Here are four ways you can turn it down without killing the joy of a spin, dance or HIIT sesh:
Download a decibel counter on your smartphone. Sound Meter compares decibels to common sounds like “quiet library” (30 dBa), “conversation” (60 dBa) or a leaf blower (102 dBa). If your workout blasts above 90 dBa, you could be wheeling into the danger zone. Recommended levels should be around 85 dBa or lower, according to The Washington Post. With apps like dB Volume Meter and deciBel, you can educate yourself and others with the facts of fortissimo.
Bring a set of earplugs. “Loud sounds at the gym are incongruous with health,” Dr. Bronzaft said. Just like bar tunes can make patrons stay longer and drink more, rhythmic high-volume songs are thought to help students “climb those hills.” If you can’t influence a decrease in decibels, take care of yourself by wearing earplugs.
Develop a rapport with the gym staff and administration. Say hello to the people who hand you towels and clean your mats. Call them by their names and compliment them on studio improvements like shelving systems and better lighting. If you have to make a complaint, employees will take you more seriously. Collaboration can ultimately help your gym avoid potential legal harm. The cost of hearing loss has been estimated to be $297,000 throughout the lifetime of every affected person, according to the CDC.
Consider the people who take such good care of you. When Dr. Bronzaft takes Zumba, she asks fellow students how they feel about the volume. Then she politely requests that the teacher turn it down, showing concern for the instructor without losing any of the fun.
After all, music helps us celebrate our bodies and time with other people. With a few adjustments, we’ll all enjoy it longer for years to come.
Ann Votaw is a freelance writer in New York who has a M.A. in Health Education. She teaches yoga and physical fitness to adults 60 and better.