Gyms are places where many of us go to get healthy, fit and fabulous. Simply put, the intent is to get better rather than worse. To my chagrin and the collective chagrins of my fellow gym aficionados, more than once, we have left spin classes with not just sore legs and rears but sore and ringing ears. The latter is the problematic part, the former par for the course.
A paper titled Noise levels in fitness classes still too high was published in the Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health last month. As its title suggests, it backs up what many of us have long hypothesised – that sound levels in high-intensity gym classes are often way too high.
85 per cent of instructors found loud music motivating, whereas about one-fifth of clients found it stressful.
As part of the study, noise levels were tested during 35 low-intensity and 65 high-intensity classes in 1997-98 and again in 2009-11. The study assessed noise levels at four different gyms – two large gyms in Newcastle, north of Sydney, for the first study and eight separate gyms in Sydney for the second. Seven of those were Fitness First branches, which operate nationally. Permission was obtained from the management and instructors of the participating gyms to measure noise levels during selected classes and questionnaires distributed to clients and instructors.
Instructors and clients were asked about their preferred music volume levels and whether they found loud music “stressful” or “motivating”. Turns out, instructors prefer much higher volumes than clients for high-intensity classes. In both studies, about 85 per cent of instructors found loud music motivating, whereas about one-fifth of clients found it stressful.
Noise levels in both time periods were similar, averaging at about 93.1 decibels. Noise levels in low-intensity classes dropped from 88.9dB to 85.6dB. Happily that means classes like yoga are getting quieter, and given their very nature that makes sense, but sound levels in, for example, spin classes, are still spinning out of control.
Janette Thorburn, principal audiologist at Australian Hearing, says it is “astonishing” that some gyms are playing music at these levels. “We know that one gym in the United States has recorded a level of 106dB in a spin class,” she says. “That is insane. If you are an instructor and you do a few classes back to back at high levels it is definitely damaging to your hearing.”
This type of recreational noise is becoming more of a concern for Australian Hearing, Thorburn says. “Our research arm is now looking at noise levels in gyms. The Australian standard is 85dB of continuous noise over eight hours. If you raise the levels to 91dB then you can only be exposed for two hours safely and so on. Recreational noise is a hugely ignored public health problem.”
So what if your ears are ringing after spinning up a storm to Don Henley’s Boys of Summer? “This is a form of tinnitus,” Thorburn says. “It’s our ears signalling to us that the next step is damage and that if you keep going back, you will be asking for more damage, we are now seeing more and more people walking away with this type of ringing in the ears after high intensity gym classes.”
The author of the paper, research psychologist at the National Acoustic Laboratories, Elizabeth Beach, says it’s time for more awareness around the issue. “Fitness class providers are trying to make their classes like nightclubs to entice people in the doors which is not necessary,” she says. “Another strategy could be to vary tempo as opposed to turning the volume up to dangerous levels.” About 14 per cent of young Australians (aged 18-35) are being exposed to noise levels that are over the safe work place limit. The damage is often done during their leisure time when they listen to loud music on electronic devices or visit nightclubs or live concert venues. Often the damage is done, Beach says, and because hearing issues often don’t materialise until later in life, people tend to put off worrying about it.
“Hearing loss may not become evident for another 20 years but that’s why we talk about tinnitus now,” she says. “People need to imagine what it is like to have that tinnitus not go away. The human system is not designed to hear sounds like the ones pumping out of gym speakers over a long period of time, we simply have not evolved to deal with those sorts of sound levels.”
I have complained about decibel levels at my gym many times, in particular in instructors’ spin classes, only to be told to “wear ear plugs if you can’t handle it”. Question is, if members do develop hearing problems in the future could these matters be ones for the courts to handle? Do gyms have a duty of care to members?
Fitness First classes operate the same classes at all their branches across Australia. Head of fitness, Rob Hale, says: “We are guided by all relevant occupation health and safety standards, and actively participated in the noise study conducted in 2009-2011 to gain a better understanding of noise levels. We will continue to monitor our noise levels within our clubs to ensure that the approach remains consistent, and that all our staff understand the importance of maintaining the prescribed audio levels.”
Elizabeth Beach believes the onus is on gyms to look after patrons. She says that if you feel the music is too loud in your class, you should approach your instructor. “What’s worrying though is that instructors prefer higher noise levels than clients, suggesting that efforts to reduce noise levels may meet with some resistance. Given the possible health risks from excessively loud music, the fitness industry is encouraged to re-examine the role of loud music and to creatively explore new ways to motivate clients so that instructors’ hearing is protected and clients’ needs are met.”
Could it be that your gym is also pumping up the volume to unsafe levels? Beach hypothesises that indeed a trend appears be forming. “In my opinion the problem is widespread and you could expect to encounter similar noise levels wherever fitness classes are set to music. In another study we’ve done recently, we have another 32 recordings from fitness classes (some Fitness First and some independents) and the noise figures are very similar, a rule of thumb is that if you think the music is way too loud then it probably is.”