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Music in spinning classes: not always music for your ears!

Pascal van Dort
19 May 2022

Isn't it true that going to the gym is beneficial? Regular exercise helps people lose weight and improves their physical and emotional health. However, some types of exercise can have unforeseen detrimental effects on your health, such as your hearing.

spin class room with Rockfon acoustic ceiling tiles

Sartrouville, France

Spinning is a low-impact and joint-friendly activity. Spinning, like running, is an excellent cardiovascular workout. If you're like most people, you've undoubtedly attended at least one spin class. Indoor cycling is popular for a reason: it provides a strong cardio workout that burns a lot of calories – up to 600 per hour.  

A 2018 study indicated that indoor cycling and strength training were sufficient to improve endurance and strength without requiring dietary changes[1]. It's a pleasant way to ride away daily stress in a group setting, especially with the loud, thumping music that most spin sessions feature.  

However, the same music might injure your ears, negating the benefits you're getting from the rest of your body. Our hearing is quite delicate. Long periods of exposure to loud music can cause hearing loss.

Spinning Classes: An Exhausting Hearing Exercise 

Every week I try to go to my health club to do some exercise. But this week, I decided to pump it up a little more and try something else: spinning, also known as indoor cycling. And, I must admit, it was a draining experience — not just for my body, but also for my ears. 

The issue is that the volume levels are too high. Most spin class instructors prefer to turn up the volume to get their members' legs pumping harder and faster. I was shocked by how loud the music was and how hard the teacher was shouting to ensure that everyone could hear her. This is also called the Lombard effect.  

Any noise that is louder than 85 dB can be harmful to your hearing. I used my smartphone to measure the noise levels in different parts of the spinning class, and I found that the average noise level was 92 dB. 

  • A session typically lasts 50-60 minutes and is led by an instructor who guides everyone accompanied by uplifting music. 
  • Spinning is a cardiovascular activity that helps reduce the risk of heart attack, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure[2]. This type of exercise can also help increase lung capacity[3]
  • Health authorities recommend 150 minutes of cardio exercise per week to reduce health risks [4]

The Lombard Effect

Also known as the Lombard reflex, is the involuntary tendency of speakers to increase their vocal effort when speaking in the presence of background noise in order to improve their voice's audibility.

But what about hearing damage? It all depends on how long you are exposed to a certain noise level. With the 92 dB, I measured, it was still safe for me within a maximum exposure for about 1,5 hours[5].  

So, apparently, I was lucky. Research from the United States found a maximum of 116,7 dB among 17 random spinning classes! In addition, people spent an average of 32 minutes at a noise level over 100 dB.  

Given that the maximal exposure period for 100dB is 15 minutes [5], so we can conclude that everyone who participated in these spinning classes had some kind of hearing damage, like noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). NIHL is the second most common type of hearing loss after age-related hearing impairment [6]

The instructors have even higher chances of getting hearing impairment. According to research,  instructors who teach two or more high-intensity sessions per day are at risk of hearing damage [7]. Unfortunately, it is not just the hearing that is at risk for these training experts. Yelling to be heard by everyone in the room, or raising their voice simply because the music is too loud, can cause major vocal damage. 

How Does Music Affect Your Workout? 

Why does the music have to be so loud that it is damaging our hearing and affecting our well-being? Can't we just turn down the volume, put on earplugs, or improve the room's acoustics? The answer is not that simple because of the fact that we just “love” loud music.  

If you've ever taken a spin class while listening to music or ridden your home trainer while listening to your favourite tracks, you'll understand how beneficial music can be as a workout enhancer. A good upbeat song may get you pumped and ready to go, allowing you to give your all on the bike. 

Apparently, we should blame our sacculus. A team led by psychologist Neil Todd, from the University of Manchester, has discovered that the sacculus, as a part of our inner ear, releases endorphins when stimulated by loud music. The sacculus, for instance,  particularly likes low frequencies of musical beats (bass) above 90 decibels [9].

People working out in the gym with different exercises.

According to a 2009 report by a group of British academics, music functions as a “distractor,” decreasing the individual's awareness of the labour, weariness, and discomfort that are involved[10]. In essence, music fools our brain into making a workout feel less strenuous than it would otherwise. At the same time, music simultaneously encourages us to perform more work with less effort. 

Another research was done by the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology, at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg[11] shows us which noise level we like the most when doing fitness exercises. Here are some outcomes of music volumes in the gym: 

  • 80 dB: too soft (52%) less enjoyable (38%) 
  • 85 dB: comfortable (75%) enjoyable (66%) 
  • 90 dB: comfortable (74%) enjoyable (76%) 
  • 95 dB: too loud (33%) enjoyable (57%) 

As a result, a difference of 5 dB has a significant influence. It may not sound like much, but it is undeniably noticeable. 

How to Reduce the Sound Levels in Gym Classes? 

We live in an age of distraction and noise, and it's just getting worse. A gym that has been updated to meet contemporary fitness trends is not a shelter from noise pollution

Spinning isn't the only exercise that might harm your hearing. Any exercise class that includes loud music, such as aerobics, puts you at risk of permanent hearing loss. Crashing weights, trainers yelling, kettlebells crashing to the floor: it's all a bombardment of noise that has a bad impact on the club environment.

Beekdal Lyceum Arnhem

Reducing the sound levels can be easily achieved by adding sound-absorbing materials to the room. Most of the materials in a spinning room are hard, flat, and smooth surfaces. This includes mirrors on the walls or concrete ceilings or floors. These surfaces reflect all of the sound waves. By optimising the room acoustics and minimising reverberation time, you can reduce sound levels while simultaneously boosting the instructor's speaking intelligibility. 

There is a guideline in the Netherlands called ‘Guidelines Accessibility Indoor sports accommodations’[12]. This guideline has a chapter specifically dedicated to the acoustics of fitness, aerobics, indoor cycling, and martial arts rooms. It recommends an average reverberation duration of 0.600-0.80 seconds (125Hz-4000Hz)[12]

 

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References:

  1. Kyröläinen, Heikki, Anthony C. Hackney, Riikka Salminen, Johanna Repola, Keijo Häkkinen, and Jari Haimi. 2018. “Effects of Combined Strength and Endurance Training on Physical Performance and Biomarkers of Healthy Young Women.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 32 (6): 1554–61. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000002034. 
  2. Wilson WJ, Herbstein N, The Role of Music Intensity in Aerobics: Implications for Hearing Conservation, Journal of the American Academy of Audiology, volume 14, Number 1, 2003 
  3. Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018;5:135. Published 2018 Sep 28. doi:10.3389/fcvm.2018.00135 
  4. Jang-Gun Yoon, Seok-Hee Kim, Hyun-Seung Rhyu. Effects of 16-week spinning and bicycle exercise on body composition, physical fitness and blood variables of middle school students. Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation 2017;13(4):400-404 
  5. Piercy KL, Troiano RP, Ballard RM, et al. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. JAMA. 2018;320(19):2020-2028. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.14854 
  6. “Noise Exposure - Permissible Levels and Duration.” n.d. Www.engineeringtoolbox.com. Accessed May 6, 2022. https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/noise-exposure-level-duration-d_717.html. 
  7. Sinha et al., Cycling Exercise Classes May Be Bad for Your (Hearing), The Laryngoscope. The American Laryngological, Rhinological and Otological Society Inc., August 2017 
  8. Taneja MK. Noise-induced hearing loss. Indian Journal of Otology, volume 20, issue 4, October 2014 
  9. Petri, Alexandra E. 2020. “Loud Fitness Classes Take a Toll on Instructors’ Voices.” The New York Times, January 9, 2020, sec. Well. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/09/well/live/fitness-instructors-vocal-injuries-shouting.html. 
  10. Waterhouse, J., P. Hudson, and B. Edwards. 2010. “Effects of Music Tempo upon Submaximal Cycling Performance.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 20 (4): 662–69. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.00948.x. 
  11. Todd N, Evidence for a behavioural significance of saccular acoustic sensitivity in humans. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 110, 380 (2001) 
  12. “Richtlijnen Toegankelijkheid Indoor Sportaccommodaties.” n.d. Accessed May 6, 2022. https://www.kennisbanksportenbewegen.nl/?file=4569&m=1434536870&action=file.download.