January 30, 2013
In a fit of new year's zeal, I recently decided I might rejoin my health club, which I'd quit last spring.
"Why'd you leave us?" asked the nice membership guy when I went in to say I was debating whether to return.
One word: music.
The music in the group classes was painfully, dangerously loud, instructors screeching into headsets hoping to be heard above the pounding from the speakers.
As I waxed on about the lunacy of harming people's ears while you're peddling health, the nice membership guy listened with the air of a therapist waiting for the patient to calm down. He nodded.
"You're not the first person I've heard that from," he said.
But? I could hear the "but" zooming toward me like a siren.
But, he said, the music levels were set by corporate in New York. Maybe I could wear earplugs?
One day, we'll look back with dismay at how we tortured our ears in the pursuit of fun and health. We'll wonder, just as we now wonder about smoking, how we could have been so stupid, so delusional, so compliant in our self-destruction.
Until that day, millions of people will continue to bop to the health-club blare, as if every extra decibel is 100 more calories burned, another biceps sculpted, another bun turned to steel.
Who cares if you're deaf as long as you're buff?
My health club, otherwise a fine place, is probably no louder than most in Chicago, though the fact that "corporate in New York" sets the standard makes me wonder. A New York Times story last summer chronicled the recreational noise inflation all over that loud city — in gyms, restaurants, stores — and made a case for the danger.
A spin class at one Crunch gym in Manhattan averaged 100 decibels and at one point hit 105. At another in Brooklyn, the noise level averaged 95. (Over 85 for a sustained period is risky.)
Complaining about loud music makes you feel old, so I was consoled by talking to Marie Vetter.
"I'm 30, and I don't like going to places to work out where the music is really loud," said Vetter, an audiologist at University of Chicago Medicine. "But maybe that's because I know the dangers."
Hearing loss is tempting to ignore, Vetter notes, because it isn't visible.
"When people recognize it, it can be too late," she said. "I always educate people — if you protect your hearing now, it's going to keep you from getting hearing aids down the road."
Loud music can harm more than your ears. It triggers a fight-or-flight response. You breathe faster, your blood pressure rises, you sweat more. That's not the same as a great workout. Listened to over long periods, loud music can trigger heart disease.
Gym members aren't the only ones at risk at the gym. Instructors who play loud music may damage not only their ears but their voices as they shout over the music.
Note to gym owners: workers comp lawsuit waiting to happen.
So far, the law doesn't regulate music in gyms, and to make matters trickier, what's loud to one person may seem normal to others.
"It's called loudness memory," Vetter said. "The first day you might be, 'Gosh, this is loud,' but you get used to it."
Getting used to it doesn't make it safer.
I did rejoin my health club, for now, but I won't be going to any classes unless the music changes.
Does the decibel level in your club bother you? Join the crusade. Speak up and sweetly say:
TURN THE MUSIC DOWN!
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