Headphones on, motivation up, workout initiated. It’s a ritual most of us conduct without considering the actual headphone volume and sound thumping in our ears.
But the popularity of portable listening devices means that the average gym-goer stands to damage his or her ears faster than a jackhammer operator.
We spoke with two otolaryngology experts A. Tucker Gleason, Ph.D., of the University of Virginia, and Philip Chen, M.D., of the University of Texas at San Antonio to find out how you can enjoy your Aaptiv workout music without jeopardizing your hearing.
Our Ears’ Grim Future
According to the Mayo Clinic, prolonged exposure to loud noises can cause hearing loss by damaging the hairs and nerve cells within the inner ear.
This inhibits the electrical synapses you need to hear. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration sets a worker’s eight-hour permissible exposure limit at 90 decibels.
This is the noise you’d hear standing in a working boiler room, the organization says. For every five decibels above 90, OSHA states, a person should cut their noise exposure in half.
A 2014 Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research study measured the listening levels of New Yorkers. The average listener experienced 94.1 decibels, and more than half exceeded their weekly recommended exposure limit.
“And keep in mind the decibel scale is logarithmic,” Gleason says. “So we’re talking orders of magnitude.” This means it takes ten times as much power to produce just ten more decibels. This explains the rapid increase in hearing hazard as listening levels rise.
“We have more and more people using headphones all the time. I do think the amount of noise we’re getting is just going to make things worse in the long term,” Chen says.
Indeed, half of American preteens listen to music daily, as do two-thirds of teenagers. A 2017 JAMA study estimates that the number of Americans with hearing loss will “nearly double in the coming decades” as today’s youthful listeners age. “We have no way of bringing your hearing back,” Chen says. “The more preventative efforts a person makes early on are going to be well worth it down the road.”
Not all devices and headphones are created equal.
It’s impossible to levy a standardized recommendation on specific headphone volume without measuring the decibels with an external device. “There’s not an industry standard. There’s high variability from one device manufacturer to another,” Gleason says. “In addition, step sizes on volume setting one and volume setting two aren’t consistent.”
Consumer headphones and earbuds tend to max out at around 110 decibels. The average range is 97-107 decibels, according to the Journal of the American Academy of Audiology, although select models can reach 130. What’s more confusing is headphones of the same model probably aren’t equal. “Even if I go out and buy three different earbuds from the same manufacturer, they would all have a different output—as much as 10 decibels,” Gleason says.
Even if you knew the decibels of each volume setting on your device and headphones, your listening volume could vary song to song. “Everything is recorded a little bit differently, too,” Chen says. “Some of your music might be recorded louder. Others might be softer.” All this is to say that an attempt to slightly undercut the safe listening volume of 90 decibels could still end in hearing loss.
Quit beating your eardrums.
If you pose the question of portable device listening frequency to an otolaryngologist, they’ll tell you they’d prefer you didn’t use headphones at all. Such experts also understand you’re probably going to ignore that advice. So here’s how you can have your music and hear it at a safe headphone volume, too.
Check the headphone volume and listening duration.
“If someone standing arm-length from you can hear anything coming out of your earphones or earbuds, [the music] is too loud,” Gleason says. Give your ears a break after an hour of listening, too.
Don’t use music to drown out gym noise.
If your workout music drowns out the ambient noise of a busy gym, chances are it’s too loud. “There’s no evidence that I’m aware of that louder music makes you perform any better,” Chen says. If you really don’t like ambient noise in your headphones, invest in a noise-canceling set.
Factor in other sources of loud noise.
A gym rat’s hearing loss is likely attributable to headphone use. However, it’s important to consider the net damage to your hearing from other sources. “There are more and more amplifiers in people’s cars…I’m in Texas, so a lot of people, even from a young age, start hunting and firing rifles,” Chen says. If you’re frequently around loud noises, reduce your headphone use further.
Test your hearing for signs of hearing loss.
If you’ve experienced signs of hearing loss or simply want to test your hearing, try The National Hearing Test. It’s $8, or free for AARP members, but it could be worth it if you’re feeling your hearing begin to diminish.
Workout to music you love with the top trainers with our audio-based fitness app, Aaptiv.