Thursday, April 5, 2012

Can a Group Exercise Class Cause Permanent Hearing Loss?

Hearing Loss and Exercise Classes - Photo by Heather Warick at Wikimedia Commons
Many people who might not have tried a group exercise, or aerobics, class in the past are now much more interested in working out in a group. Quite a few facilities have begun to offer aerobics classes that offer a sort of club feel or party atmosphere featuring fun and toning moves set to the beat of cultural or popular music. Other classes may have turned up the heat with workouts that promise to take people to the edge of their physical abilities, all to the tune of a hard-driving beat. Yet, all too often, the music levels in many group exercise classes are far above what is considered safe and is typically only exceeded by an instructor shouting in the microphone.

Although many of these classes are packed, some participants are steering clear. Health club members may look wistfully at the class but keep walking down the hall. They might be able to try the moves and enjoy the workout but aren't willing to put their hearing on the line. One lady made an insightful observation by saying, "A gym should care about my total physical health...and that includes my ears!"

How Loud is Too Loud in Aerobics Class? © Katrena
Sound Standards for Group Exercise Classes

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), hearing may be affected when a person is exposed to sounds greater than 85 decibels (dB) for more than 45 minutes, with an increased likelihood of hearing loss with habitual exposure. Sound levels at 91 db for any length of time are considered unsafe by many sources. Although certified group exercise instructors may be aware of sound standards, they may not realize that the noise level is unsafe in their classes. Other instructors may know that the music volume is too high but assume that participants want the louder volume.

Most gyms do not have audiometers for checking dB levels, so the assessment of whether or not the music volume is at a safe level often lies with group exercise instructors. Although some facilities might mark a certain setting for music levels on the sound system, individual instructors might ignore that safety directive. In addition, devices such as mp3 players have individual volume controls that can override the volume set on the sound system.

What are warning signs or red flags that the noise level is too high in an aerobics class? As a general rule of thumb, if you must shout to be heard by someone three feet away during class, the noise level is likely too high. The music volume is probably too high if one's ears hurt or ring (tinnitus) immediately after a class is over.

These loud volumes may also affect the instructor's hearing and the hearing of others who are in nearby areas of the facility. OSHA addresses noise levels for employees in which permissible noise exposure is 100 dB if exposed to the noise for two hours/workday. That maximum number decreases if the person is exposed to loud noises for longer periods of time.

Hearing loss due to prolonged exposure to loud noises is usually permanent. Prevention is a much better strategy than treating the problem after the fact, however options for adaptive devices such as various types of hearing aids are much more plentiful than in the past.

Protect Hearing in Group Exercise Class - Photo by photographer at Wikimedia Commons
Hearing Loss Prevalence and Symptoms

Although many assume that hearing loss only affects seniors, approximately six million people aged 18 to 44 have a hearing deficit in the United States. One million school-aged children also have hearing loss. The percentage of younger people with hearing deficits is rising, but many physicians may not routinely check for hearing loss at a regular physical. Hearing loss may not be readily apparent to the healthcare provider in a quiet setting in which only two people are carrying on a conversation. Hearing loss tends to be more apparent in group settings with background noise.

Unfortunately, sensorineural hearing loss due to sustained loud noises such as rock concerts and some group exercise classes tends to occur gradually and the person might not realize that he or she is experiencing permanent damage. People with this type of hearing deficit might notice a ringing in the ears, that they need to turn the television volume higher, feel that everyone (especially women and children) seem to be mumbling, or they might misunderstand statements that others are making, particularly in group settings.

The Better Hearing Institute offers several resources for people who think they may already have a hearing deficit, such as a:
Earplugs or a Plug for Lower Volume? - Photo by Light Current at Wikimedia Commons
Options for Creating a Healthier Environment for Exercise

As folks prepare to take an exercise class, they might ensure that they have well fitting athletic shoes, clothing that will not restrict, a full water bottle, an empty bladder. Some people now use earplugs when taking group exercise classes. Is that really necessary? Some might say yes while others would like to see a healthier environment for all students and the instructor(s).

Many gyms assume that people will not take a group exercise class unless the music is booming. Some participants will stop coming to classes, cancel a membership, and go elsewhere if they do not have music volumes at high levels in exercise classes. This group, which typically includes younger generations, may be quite vocal about their wishes and might be more likely to have somewhat of a herd mentality in which an entire group might join or cancel a membership to a health club.

However, a silent majority may prefer lower volumes in classes. Many in this group, which typically includes older adults, may be internally motivated and will often seek out other opportunities within the facility that meet their exercise needs while protecting their hearing. They may remain silent because they were taught not to complain or may assume that the facility will turn a deaf ear to their concerns. Perhaps they are simply choosing their battles.

Options for advocating for a hearing-friendly group exercise class include:
  • Requesting that the instructor decrease the music and microphone volumes.
  • Speaking with the group exercise coordinator about the issue.
  • Voicing concerns with the director of the facility.
Documenting these concerns with specific details may carry more weight with the appeal for a change. Sometimes classes may be louder when the group exercise coordinator is not in the building. If some instructors are offering classes with safe music volumes, consider regularly attending those classes. Many instructors are only allowed to maintain a schedule if their class numbers meet a minimum expectation.

Unfortunately, many facilities and/or instructors ignore requests for quieter music in group exercise classes. Instructor enthusiasm and variety can more than make up for a lower volume of music, but facilities and/or instructors may simply look the other way and continue to crank up the volume for the sake of keeping as many members as possible. They may assume that the seniors, who are often the consistent members that may stay for many years, will simply adapt to alternate schedules rather than make the move to another facility.

If one facility refuses to accommodate a safety issue such as providing safe noise levels in group exercise classes, other facilities in the area might be able to provide a more suitable workout environment. When looking for a gym with the intention of taking group exercise classes, it is wise to visit the facility a few times and see for oneself whether or not music volume is controlled adequately before investing in a membership.

Noise Levels in Aerobics Classes

The bad news is that many gyms offer group exercise classes with dangerously high music levels that could contribute to permanent hearing loss in the future. Although instructor training and facility policy often includes limits on noise level, that safety issue is often overlooked in order to attract more members. However, an informed consumer might be able to encourage a healthier environment. Most people attend exercise classes in order to achieve better health and should not have to sacrifice their hearing in order to do so.

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  1. A good instructor with creative choreography does not need to count on excessive volume to motivate a class. Sometimes less is more.

    1. I could not agree with you more, danushka!


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