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Hearing Loss Causes: Pumping the Volume When Pumping Iron

While a good workout is good for everything from muscle tone and balance to weight control and improved heart and lung function, for those who plug in when they pump up, they might be pumping up hearing damage and hearing loss, according to a recent study published in The International Journal of Audiology’s December, 2009 issue.

The Findings? We Like Our Music LOUD!

We’ve discussed the dangers to hearing that ear buds present many times before. Those tiny audio drivers pump a ton of sound down your ear canal. They may be small enough to fit into the ear but they deliver a wallop to your hearing.

The director of the study, Dr. Bill Hodgetts, PhD, an assistant professor of Audiology and Speech Pathology at the University of Alberta, Canada, asked study participants to listen to the same music in three different listening environments: 

  • resting in a quiet environment
  • resting in a loud or noisy environment
  • exercising on a stationary bike

And while you might not be too surprised at the study’s findings, you will be surprised by the extent to which we turn up our portable sound systems during workouts.

"People generally listen to music at reasonable levels of volume, but we've found that exercising, mainly because of the background noise, can influence people to turn up the volume to potentially unsafe levels for the ear," Dr Hodgetts reports in The Journal. If you exercise, you know it’s true and you know why.

Hearing loss causes
Pumping it the volume may pump down your hearing

First, a rockin’ set of tunes to accompany any workout is a motivator. Listening to our favorites at a loud volume gets the whole body engaged in the workout. Lots of walkers put together music sets that maintain the perfect beat for walking – even changing from fast to slow to somewhere in-between to go farther and ration that energy and healthy exercise.

Second, music is a good distraction for what is (let’s face it) a boring activity. Doing a 5K on the treadmill may do your body good but the 38 minutes it takes to speed walk that 5K feels like hours. And music fills the void. It takes your mind off the boring part as you enjoy your favorite music – from Enya to Metallica’s greatest hits.

It doesn’t matter what kind of music you listen to. It’s the volume levels. High volume levels cause damage to hearing which ultimately can cause permanent hearing loss. Proven fact.

Finally, the study revealed that we tend to increase the volume on our MP3 players to cover background noise. Think about it. When you’re walking down a busy city street, you turn up the volume to close out the din that surrounds you. Traffic noise. People noise. Jackhammers. Subways. Plugging in is a great way to shut out the world and give yourself a little “inner space.”

Turning up the volume on a crowded city street is understandable. It’s noisy. But a gym? Or a quick walk along some quiet country roads? You don’t think of these as necessarily loud places. But MP3 wearers still increase the volume to block out noise and create that “inner space” in which they lose themselves during what would otherwise be a boring workout.

The worst environment is the gym. There’s a lot of external noise coming at you from all different directions. There’s the noise made by the workout equipment. The noise from the workout buddies chatting next to you. Each treadmill adds to the overall sound threshold.

Then there’s the noise that your body makes when you engage in exercise. If you’re doing it right, there’s a lot of huffing and puffing going on in there. And there are a lot of exercisers – in gyms and walking the back roads each morning – huffing and puffing to their favorite music played at ear-busting volume.

"Heavier breathing and the distracting sounds from the exercise machines could be factors," explained Dr. Hodgetts. "People also like to make the music louder because it pumps them up." Yes indeed, the report backs it up. People play their iPods and MP3s at louder levels during a workout.

But wait until you hear by how much. It’s an earful.

75% of Max Power

Yikes, that is loud!

People listening to tunes in a quiet environment tend to listen at lower listening levels because there’s no competing sound in their environment. They can focus on their music or audio book at lower sound levels.

Add background noise and volume/listening levels increase. Again, listening levels tend to sync up with the sounds around you. The louder the ambient sound, the louder you turn up your MP3. But then, when you add the internal huffing and puffing, the study reveals that those who use iPods during workouts listen at 75% of max volume – and that’s definitely moving into the hearing danger zone.

Blocking Out Noise with Noise? Doesn’t Make Sense

One of the key factors associated with long-term hearing loss is exposure to loud noise over long periods of time. The longer the exposure, the more damage done to the delicate hearing mechanism that we all take for granted. We hear fine today and we assume things will always be that way.

Not true. The longer you expose your ears to ear bud thunder the more damage you do. So what’s the solution? Especially for gym rats that couldn’t go a day without a brisk walk on the treadmill while plugged into a solid wall of sound in which to lose themselves. You see these people every time you go to the gym. In fact, you may be one.

Dr. Hodgetts offers some good advice. "The gym is a noisy place. Background noise is the main factor in why people will raise the volume on their personal playlist. Any earphones that reduce the background noise, either with an active noise cancelling circuit or just a good tight seal, will allow people to still enjoy their music without having to turn it up so loud," he said.

"It's a small price to pay to protect your hearing."

The study specifically urges those who exercise to keep at it. It’s good for you. "Don't stop exercising. Don't stop listening to your iPod. If listening to music helps you exercise, keep doing it", states Dr. Hodgetts.

Get better earphones! Now that’s simple.

The standard issue ear buds – the ones that come with your MP3 player – aren’t the best quality. The sound, at louder volumes, is often slightly distorted so sound quality is one factor. Second, ear buds often don’t fit snug in the ear and thus do little to block out background noise – the noise you try to block out by turning the volume up on your iPod.

By spending a little money on better quality headphones, you won’t have to turn up the volume as loud to block out the noise around you. Noise cancellation headsets are available. These over-the-ear listening headphones block out ambient noise with cups that cover the ear, delivering the benefits of loud sound during exercise without the negative effects.

The down fall to over-the-ear noise canceling headphones is they may not be very comfortable while exercising, especially if you sweat a lot. Another option is to consider custom made headphones to use with your MP3 player. This involves a hearing professional taking a mold of your ear and ordering you custom made headphones that fit nice and snug inside the bowl of your ear. Not only will these help block out some of the background noise (although not as good as over-the-ear) they will also help keep your headphone in your ear while working out.

Bottom line: With noise cancellation headsets, you don’t hear distracting background noise. You hear your music. At a lower, less harmful volume.

Your hearing can heal itself if given breaks between exposures to loud noise. It’s the cumulative effect that often causes long-term-never-to-return hearing loss. That translates into a simple rule: give your ears a break.

Increase your awareness of the importance of healthy hearing. Turn down the volume, block out loud noise with noise cancellation headphones and take sensible breaks in between each set of heavy metal you lift and hear.

Drew Brees Hearing Protection
Photo courtesy of

Appreciating healthy hearing will keep you hearing healthier longer. Just ask Brittany Brees and her husband, New Orleans Saints QB and winner of this year’s Superbowl. This is one family that recognizes the importance of hearing health.

Did you catch this picture that appeared in newspapers across the country?

That’s Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, winners of this year’s Superbowl. Drew greets his son, Baylen after winning the game – the first time the Saints have every won a Superbowl.

Brees wife, Brittany, appreciates the importance of healthy hearing and protects the toddler’s hearing with protective ear gear, earning Brittany the Superbowl Trophy for Good Moms.

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