The Relationship Between Hearing Loss and Exercise

For adults, hearing loss is considered to be disabling when you have experienced a loss of 40 decibels (dB) in your best hearing ear, which is the equivalent sound that is found in a quiet room. Children are considered to be suffering from hearing loss when they experience a loss of 30 dB or the equivalent of whispering in a library. Normal hearing can discern sounds at least at 25 dB, which is the equivalent of less than a faint whisper. Hearing loss is suffered by 360 million people worldwide, almost 10 percent (or 32 million) of which are children. Some cases of hearing loss are natural, while other causes are preventable. Common causes of hearing loss include:

  • Genetic factors
  • Birth complications
  • Chronic ear infections
  • Infectious diseases
  • Certain drugs and medications
  • Excessive noise
  • Aging

Hearing loss in children is largely preventable with about 60 out of 100 cases being from preventable causes. Hearing loss is a huge drain on the economy, resulting in approximately 750 billion dollars in healthcare costs around the world. Preventive methods are largely effective and can reduce this global economic burden. Exercise has been shown to be an effective preventive method. However, there are cases when exercise may actually increase your risk of developing hearing loss.

A woman exercising with headphones on
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Negative Effects of Exercise on Hearing

While exercise is most commonly associated with health benefits, exercise can be linked to increased risk of hearing loss when coupled with loud music. Your gym may offer aerobics classes that play music during workouts anywhere between 60 dB (dishwasher or dryer) to 90 or 100 dB (subway, passing motorcycle, or a hand drill). Any volume above 90 dB is considered extremely loud. The International Association of Fitness Professionals recommends that you be provided earplugs or other hearing protective items if volumes exceed 90 dB.

While this seems like an easy solution, the recommended hearing protective interventions are not always honored because the high-intensity music can be considered motivating. In order to have a successfully motivating and enjoyable class, protective strategies are sometimes overlooked. Aerobics instructors are particularly at risk with approximately 30 out of 100 instructors saying that they experience tinnitus 50 percent of the time. You can use the information below to help determine your risk of acquiring hearing loss during a 60-minute aerobics class:

  • High-risk = 97 dB (hand drill or pneumatic drill)
  • At-risk = 89 dB (subway or passing motorcycle)
  • Low-risk = 85 dB (kitchen blender)
  • Very low-risk = 80 dB (blow dryer)

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), you should not exceed the following loudness for more than the specified time length to minimize the risk of hearing loss:

  • 106 dB: 3.75 minutes
  • 103 dB: 7.5 minutes
  • 100 dB: 15 minutes
  • 97 dB: 30 minutes
  • 94 dB: 1 hour
  • 91 dB: 2 hours
  • 88 dB: 4 hours
  • 85 dB: 8 hours

These recommended time limits are for general loudness exposure. However, research has shown that your ear has a temporary threshold shift (TTS) which makes you more prone to hearing damage with exercise. You can experience tinnitus (ringing in your ears) within 2 minutes of exercising when music volumes are greater than 90 dB.

Some conditions may also be exacerbated by exercises, such as patulous eustachian tube and tinnitus.

Benefits of Exercise on Hearing

While there are some potentially negative effects on hearing with exercise, the benefits outweigh the negatives in most cases. There continues to be growing research regarding the benefits and some of these benefits are not well understood.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a ratio of your weight (in kilograms) and height (in meters) to help determine your level of body fat. You can calculate your own BMI by the following equation: weight ÷ (height × height). If your BMI is greater than or equal to 25, which is considered overweight, you are at an increased risk of developing hearing loss. Regular exercise can help reduce your BMI and subsequently your risk of developing hearing loss.

Similar to BMI, an increased waist circumference greater than 88 cm can also place you at risk for developing hearing loss. Reasons that increased BMI and waist circumference may increase your risk of hearing loss include:

  • Damage due to low oxygen levels
  • Production of free radicals from fat cells
  • Reduced production of adiponectin, which has anti-inflammatory effects

Walking at least two hours per week has been shown to provide protective benefits to your heart and kidneys. Regular exercise also helps reduce your risk for other diseases that have increased the risk of hearing loss: diabetes, heart disease and other diseases related to blood vessels. It is thought, but not well understood, that regular activity will have the same beneficial effects on your cochlea (snail-shaped organ involved with your hearing process). The assumed benefits to the cochlea include:

  • Improved blood circulation
  • Prevention of neurotransmitter loss
  • Reducing damage caused by noise

Yoga practitioners suggest that hearing loss prevention and reduction of symptoms can occur through several yoga practices. The suggested benefits coincide with the aforementioned benefits of exercise through improved blood flow to the cochlea and preventing neurotransmitter damage. The yoga exercises associated with benefits related to hearing loss include:

  • Greeva Chalan: neck flexion-extension exercise
  • Skandh Chalan: shoulder exercise
  • Brahmari Pranayama: bee breath
  • Kumbhak: breathing exercise
  • Shankha Naad: blowing a Shankha or snail pipe
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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2016. Noise and Hearing Loss Prevention.
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