Music and the Fitness Class The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Editor's Note: When you see these three dots surrounded by a gray rectangle — 1 — you can click on it to get further information about the topic. Click a second time, and the message goes away.

This article was edited and updated on December 19, 2021.

Let’s Begin with Music (the good)!

Music has always been a part of my life. My parents were both musically talented, and so were my three siblings. With my sisters, I sang every popular song of the day. I played piano, clarinet, and flute. I have performed in musical theatre, sung solos at recitals, and participated in two adult women’s choirs. During my 32-year teaching career, I directed several extracurricular choirs (long before Glee was popular).

The music in my fitness class is chosen to keep participants interested, even to keep their minds off the sometimes boring or monotonous “work” of exercise. Trying to reach everyone’s particular interests in music, I play a mix of pop, jazz, oldies, country, rock, and classical. To me, music is a very important component of the class — both for one’s mood and for one’s health and well-being. Research also indicates that it can help in balance training. For more information about this see also: Music and Exercise Class: Inspirational or Soothing.

Music Therapy: Does it work?

Music therapy has been used to help those afflicted with stroke, epilepsy, depression, or autism — to name just a few. Relaxing music has been used with meditation and stretching as well. There have been studies as to the effectiveness of these things, with some mixed results, but there is an overall acceptance that music can be healing.

Researchers found that music may have benefits for our health and specifically for our balance. This research with the long title recently caught my eye: The Effect of Music-Based Multitask Training on Gait, Balance, and Fall Risk in Elderly People.

The researchers of this study already knew that “falls occur mainly while walking or performing concurrent tasks.” They wondered “if a music-based multitask exercise program could improve gait and balance and reduce fall risk in elderly individuals.”

They conducted a 12-month study involving 134 individuals older than 65 years, who were at increased risk of falling, partly because they were living in a care facility. They were divided into two groups: One group was involved in a “six-month multitask exercise program performed to the rhythm of piano music.” The other group received no special instruction or training for six months, and then were given the same instructions as the first group. Participants were tested for their gait and balance stability at the beginning and the end of the programme.

At the end of the six months, they discovered that there were fewer falls in the intervention group and a lower risk of falling. Similar changes occurred in the delayed intervention control group during the second six-month period with intervention. And even more important: “The benefit of the intervention on gait variability persisted 6 months later.”

The researchers concluded that “a 6-month music-based multitask exercise program improved gait under dual-task condition, improved balance, and reduced both the rate of falls and the risk of falling,” particularly in older people.

This was a small study, but an interesting one. And, if music — in this case, piano music — helps older adults to improve their balance, might it also be helpful to younger people? And if piano music works, why not other kinds of music? There’s no clear answer to those questions without further research, but logic suggests that we can extrapolate from this that there may be many benefits from moving to music. It’s worth keeping in mind.

And now the bad: Can music be too loud in fitness class?

The short answer is: Yes!

In fitness class, your ears can suffer from two sources: the music played by the instructor, or the mike the instructor uses. If you are in an aerobics class, it is assumed that you wish to maintain or improve your health. But while you are exercising your heart, are you harming your hearing? It is possible!

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has safety guidelines for what is dangerous sound, so the American Council on Exercise (ACE) — the professional organization for aerobics instructors in the States — was concerned about noise levels in aerobics classes. They decided to study it and recommend guidelines for safe music volume in fitness classes. Three fitness clubs in northern Virginia were used for the research.

According to the researchers, “It is almost impossible to find a class that does not involve dangerously high sound intensity. Typically the instructor revs up the music, sets the neck mike above the music and overloads the amplifier. As a result, exercise commands are delivered with lots of high frequency static destroying the consonants.”

This study discovered that the sound levels in most aerobics classes was close to that of a jackhammer!

And the ugly: What is too loud and how much damage can be done?

Sound intensity is measured in decibels (dB). Normal conversation is about 50-65 dB, busy traffic noise is 70 -80 dB, and a jackhammer is 90 -120 dB. Sound is too loud (and can damage your hearing) when you cannot carry on a conversation with someone beside you.

How long you are exposed to the sound is just as important as how loud it is. The researchers stated: “At 85 db the EPA standard for safe sound is 45 minutes. ACE's certification guidelines for aerobics instructors and their teaching facilities state that sound levels for aerobics classes should be in the range of 70-80 db.”

An explosion can cause damage instantly. Regular exposure to loud music, such as in an aerobics class or a rock concert, will happen more slowly but 30 minutes to an hour of daily exposure will cause long-term damage. Because the first loss of hearing is in the high frequencies, static sounds are more damaging than low frequency sounds — so, the researchers suggested that you should add 5 db to get the equivalent hazard level.

As sound enters the ear, it vibrates the eardrum and moves on to three delicate bones in the middle ear. The deepest of those three bones has a membrane that vibrates, sending waves to the fluid-filled portion of the inner ear. It is there — at the inner ear — that the loudness and frequency information is processed and sent to the brain by way of delicate hair cells. If sounds are too loud, hair cells can break, fuse, or even disintegrate; if that happens, information is lost on its way to the brain.

If this has happened to you, your hearing may already be at risk:

How can you protect yourself?

During the study mentioned above, the researchers found fitness personnel were very unaware of the dangers of loud music or improperly used instructor mikes. “At one national club the membership staff ... were unable to find any guidelines for sound levels.” The researchers concluded that “Teaching aerobics at high sound levels is a learned behaviour and most instructors are unwilling to change. [They] cannot distinguish dangerous sound levels without a meter.”

We don't have to engage in unhealthy practices

Just because everyone seems to be enjoying the music doesn’t mean it’s not harming them. However, you can protect your ears, and still take aerobics class. Fitness participants will not hesitate to turn on a fan or open a window to adjust the ventilation of the room, complain about someone else wearing perfume which makes them dizzy or ill, or not attend class if the building smells of paint. Why, then, do we allow our ears to be bombarded with unnecessary sound? Music can be a great motivator and soother; it doesn’t have to destroy our hearing.

There is another issue here as well: Age. Younger people tend to tell older people that they just don’t appreciate the “enjoyment” of loud music. But hearing damage happens at any age: no one is immune.

As a fitness instructor, I am aware of the dangers of loud music. I do not use a mike — although there’s another personal reason for not using them — and I use a Bose speaker and my iPhone which is not nearly as loud as the sound systems provided in the rooms. I have measured the sound levels in my fitness class and they are well within the guidelines.

The Final Word

Environmental Protection Agency Standards in the United States state that:

And more:

Music can be a great joy and useful in fitness class to soothe or motivate, but if it is too loud, all its benefits can be lost.

See also:

Resources for this article:

I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

★ ★ ★

  1. These three dots behave exactly like a footnote. Click on them and you will get more information about the topic. ↩︎