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CindySays: Now hear this: Exercise classes can hurt your ears

By Cindy Boggs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You are taking your health seriously -- your heart, lungs and legs are in great shape. That's good.

However, have you thought about your ears? Did you consider you may be destroying your hearing while strengthening your physique? It's true. Studies show that fitness-class settings have been added to a number of other environments that may potentially hurt your ears.

Say what?

Noise-induced hearing loss is damage to your ears caused by exposure to sounds that are too loud and/or that last a long time. No longer is this limited to industrial workplaces and rock concerts. Researchers are paying more attention to the prevalence of NIHL in your Zumba class and other music-driven classes.

To better understand how sound can adversely affect hearing, we must first understand that sound levels are measured in decibels (dB). The American Heritage Science Dictionary defines a decibel as: a unit used to measure the power of a signal, such as an electrical signal or sound, relative to some reference level. As a measure of sound intensity, a zero-decibel reference is stipulated to be the lowest level audible to the human ear.

How loud is too loud?

When the dB level is too high, it can lead to permanent hearing loss and tinnitus. Damage is usually cumulative and not only is it irreversible, but it's also not immediately detectable. Studies have shown that a typical music-driven class ranges between 81-95 dB and has a peak range between 128-144 dB. Sounds that register 110 dB for more than one minute may cause permanent damage to your hearing. Here are the dB levels of a few common sounds:

  • Quiet whisper, 30 dB
  • Normal conversation, 60 dB
  • City traffic (inside car), 85 dB
  • Jackhammer at 50 feet, 95 dB
  • Max level MP3 player, 105 dB
  • Loud rock concert, 115 dB
  • Indy car, 128 dB
  • Decibels and time

    The chief concern is the amount of time your ears are exposed to loud sounds. Hearing a crash of a cymbal at the symphony may register over 100 dB, but it is not sustained for the entire length of the concert. It is a short peak in the volume. Experts do warn that extreme dB levels even short term can cause permanent damage. Federal agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, have set acceptable dB levels along with their time limits for both employees and the public. For example, experts warn that if you listen to your MP3 player at the highest volume, you should not be listening for more than 15 minutes.

    Get this party started

    This is where music in leisure settings, such as the gym, becomes a significant issue. A study identified what is known as the "social noise phenomenon," which suggested that instructors as well as participants believe that higher noise levels are necessary for the enjoyment of the activity. In other words, instructors who rely on music to help motivate class members often turn up the volume to turn up the fun. Added to the amplified music are the instructor's vocal cues, which must be even louder than the songs -- and the dB level and the risk go up.

    The International Dance and Exercise Association is a respected educational organization for fitness professionals and has recommended that music intensity during group exercise classes should measure no more than 90 dB. It adds that the instructor's voice should measure no more than 100 dB.

    More sound bites

  • When presented music at 97 decibels, 67 percent of participants felt it was at a comfortable level.
  • Three-fourths of the participants enjoyed the class more when the music was presented at a level of 89 decibels.
  • Surveys indicate that instructor's perception of what might be too loud is skewed -- 57 percent believed that the volume level they played in their classes was "about right."
  • According to OSHA, each 5 dB increase in sound pressure doubles the noise dose.
  • Experts agree there is concern regarding whether fitness facilities are actively addressing noise-related issues for their instructors and their members. Some are on top of this while others are turning a deaf ear. Whether you are curious or concerned, there are free apps for smartphones such as Decibel 10th, which measures sound levels and gives you the average, peak and max values. Being informed is the best way to work toward better health as well as better hearing.

    Cindy Boggs, wellness presenter and author, is an ACE-certified instructor/trainer. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to cindysays@aol.com. Look for her award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World" on her website, www.cindysays.com.


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