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Are You a Sound Friend or a Sound Foe?

How loud is too loud? The sound of a power lawn mower registers about 90 decibels, and a chainsaw about 110 (CDC 2013). What are the sound levels in your classes? Workouts may help participants feel motivated to improve their strength and endurance, but blasting music can lead to hearing loss.

Also consider that your heavy-thumping beat may be turning people away before they have a chance to succeed. Santa Monica resident Mandev Khalsa tried a popular cycling studio and wasn’t impressed. “The noise level was awful,” Khalsa says. “I found it to be very dramatic to the ear drum, to my whole body. I thought about leaving, but wanted to give it a try. Afterwards I didn’t feel well; I was dizzy.”

The kind of “dramatic noise” Khalsa refers to can be quite harmful. Ear, nose and throat specialist John Goddard, MD, formerly of the House Research Institute in Los Angeles, confirms it: “The higher the decibel level, the shorter amount of time your ear can adapt,” he says. “Excessive noise can damage the ear in as little as 3 minutes.”

Chances are good that your classes are much longer than 3 minutes. Most classes last 45 minutes to an hour—long enough to produce serious auditory wear and tear. Many instructors teach at least five to 10 classes a week, and students may show up three to five times per week. This adds up. “if you go over an hour without protection, you can cause permanent damage to your ear cells,” Goddard warns.

How do you handle the music levels in your classes? Does your facility have a policy on sound? Even if it does, do you sometimes turn up the music to highlight a section? As a group fitness instructor, you are the first line of defense when it comes to sound safety. Are you a sound friend or a sound foe? Read on to find out more about auditory health and how you can be an advocate.

Investigating the Issue

As a nutrition and fitness reporter for KABC-TV in Los
Angeles, I decided to test the noise levels in group exercise classes in Los Angeles County and Orange County. I used two monitors to check levels: a sound monitor from Radio Shack, and an iPhone app called dB Volume. Both gave the same readings throughout my testing. All of the classes I took registered 90–100 dB many times throughout class. This is the same level as a lawn mower or a helicopter (CDC 2013). The worst offender was a popular Santa Monica indoor cycling studio, which came in at 106 dB — almost the equivalent of a jackhammer or a chain saw (CDC 2013) being operated in a small room for an extended period of time.

House Research Institute’s health educator, Marilee Potthoff, also used a dB-measuring app to check her fitness facility’s cycling class. “The decibel level was turned up louder and louder. By the time it peaked, it was at 109 decibels,” she says.

“IDEA Opinion Statement: Recommendations for Music Volume in Fitness Settings” states that sound levels for group exercise classes should not exceed 90 dB (IDEA 2002). (Visit www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/idea-opinion-statement-recommendations-music-volume-fitness-settings to read the opinion statement in its entirety.) According to the opinion statement, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA 2001) has developed guidelines for safe noise level standards based on approximately 60 minutes of continuous exposure (IDEA 2002). The Office of Health and Safety at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a sound level of 85 dB or lower over an 8-hour period (CDC 2013). During our respective field tests, Potthof and I found that these recommendations were not followed. When we asked fitness facilities and studios if they had an official sound-level policy, many did not. Some clubs offer ear plugs at the front desk, which Potthoff says is helpful. “Even the inexpensive foam kind can mute noise by 30 dB,” she explains. However, should it be coming to this in the first place?

The first step in being a sound friend may be simple awareness. Many instructors love music and may not be aware that the volume is off the charts. At the Spectrum Club, in Santa Monica, California, group exercise coordinator Madeline Lewis says it’s common to want to turn the volume up, as many students (and teachers) feel motivated by it. “We actually do get used to it, and we get numb to the level of the music,” she says. “We then think, ‘Oh, it needs to be louder.’”

While most instructors know that the music doesn’t need to be louder, Potthoff makes the same observation. “If you’re around sound that you love to hear, you’re going to want to turn it up and you do become desensitized over time.”

Auditory Health

Many instructors and students are unaware of the consequences of blasting music. The inner ear contains delicate hairs that send the brain information about loudness and frequency. When subjected to loud sound, the hair cells can break or disintegrate, leading to holes in the membrane. Information traveling to the brain is lost, and hearing becomes impaired (George Mason University 2013).

According to the National Health Interview Survey, hearing problems among Americans aged 45–64 increased 26% between 1971 and 1990 (Kulman
1999). Among persons aged 18–44, hearing loss increased 17% in that same time period. Hearing loss is similar to sun damage in that exposing yourself countless times without protection adds up. It isn’t sudden. It’s gradual and virtually painless. However, once hearing is lost, it doesn’t return (George Mason University 2013).

Beyond hearing loss, The World Health Organization (1999) finds that excess noise interrupts sleep and disturbs our ability to perform tasks. It even contributes to cardiovascular disease. Researchers have also found that people living in excessively loud areas may have blood pressure rates 5%–8% higher than normal (Khan 2012). Many U.S. communities have taken these and other facts to heart and have passed local ordinances that govern sound levels in recreational settings. However, this doesn’t always apply to fitness facilities. It is therefore up to the fitness industry to take a leadership role in auditory health for its members and employees.

Louder Isn’t Better

In a study from the department of physics and astronomy at George Mason University (2013), which is titled “Is your aerobics class making you deaf?,” researchers bring up an important point concerning loud music in the group exercise room: peer perception. Students are known to bicker with one another about sound volume, with many claiming “The louder the better.” While this can put an instructor in a difficult position, it’s still an opportunity to take a leadership role and model good auditory health.

Instructors also need to do an ego reality check, as they are often the ones who take offense at the request to turn the music down. Students should be able to hear your instruction without losing one of their precious senses.

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