Is It Time To Ditch Your Ear Bud? The Benefits And Drawbacks Of Music During Exercise

Runners fall into two categories: those who must listen to music and those who think it detracts from the experience. Here, we look at the pros and cons of those buds in your ears.

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Natasha LaBeaud Anzures forgoes listening to music during exercise. “Running without music allows me to be completely disconnected from technology and completely engaged in the terrain around me and my inner-most thoughts.” Semena Morgan also opts for silence during her outdoor runs, as she considers it the only time of day she does not face distractions. “I’ve solved many problems out on the pavement. Music would take away from my serenity.” But not everyone shuns music. In fact, the majority do not. According to a survey of runners around the world by Brooks Running Company, 53 percent of runners choose music as their prize accessory. HealthyWay Naomi Jayne is one of them. She turns to music for more than just a pump-up—she uses it to create art in her head, which she then goes on to paint. “When I am running, I always see colors in my mind that go along with the music, or each note has a certain personality to me. When I hear the note in the music, the color forms, and as I am listening to the music, I will decide upon a color palette as a result of the music that I am listening to,” she says. Even medical professionals recommend music. Jasmine Marcus, doctor of physical therapy, says that she advises patients to listen to music when exercising to make working out more enjoyable. “I pick fast-paced songs to listen to when doing cardio on the bike or elliptical, and I encourage my patients to do the same.” HealthyWay These examples show the two ends of the music-while-running spectrum—but you never find many people in the middle. Since headphones popped up on heads, it has seemed that runners fall into two categories: those who must listen to music and those who consider it too much of a distraction/safety issue. Whichever group describes you, chances are you are pretty adamant about it. So, we won’t try to sway you. Let’s just look at the benefits and drawbacks of music during exercise.

Music, the Motivator

“There is a reason why there are exercise playlists,” says Caleb Backe, a certified personal trainer. “There is a reason why … songs are formatted (or reformatted) to fit certain types of beats-per-minute patterns.” The reason is that appropriate music increases endurance. In a study published in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, researchers found that carefully selected music can significantly increase a person’s endurance by 15 percent, as well as improve positive thinking “even when they are working out at a very high intensity—close to physical exhaustion,” according to Science Daily‘s roundup of the study. HealthyWay Costas I. Karageorghis, a researcher from the study, even took these findings and applied them to a race. The 2008 Sony Ericsson Run to the Beat half marathon was the first race to provide scientifically selected music along the course to keep runners’ endurance levels up. The race became popular and attracted around 19,000 runners in 2013, according to News Shopper. Other research shows similar results. In a study published in the peer-review journal Chest, researchers put 19 participants through two “endurance walk tests, one with and one without listening to self-selected music throughout the test.” They measured, among other things, the participants’ endurance times and levels of labored breathing—”the primary symptom limiting exercise tolerance,” the study says—upon completion. The results showed that self-selected music “increased tolerance of high-intensity exercise” and reduced labored breathing at the finish line. “Practically, the effect was modest but may represent an aid for exercise training of these patients,” they concluded. HealthyWay Aditi G. Jha, MD, agrees that music choice matters. “Most gym-goers prefer R&B to work out to, which is okay. But hard metal and too-loud music can defeat the purpose, which is to give your body a mental push and to feel good,” she says.

Watch the noise level.

You need to stay cognizant of your music noise level. Bryan Pollard, president of the nonprofit Hyperacusis Research, which funds scientific research into noise-induced pain, says any loud music can cause health issues. “[Loud music], whether it is coming from earbuds while jogging or speakers in spin class, contributes to assorted hearing dysfunction,” he says. HealthyWay Hearing loss is a widespread health condition. Approximately 36 million Americans have it, and one in three developed their hearing loss as a result of exposure to noise, according to the American Academy of Audiology. In Europe, the number is higher—52 million people self-report hearing loss, says The European Coalition on Hearing Loss and Disability. The World Health Organization estimates that it costs Europe €178 billion each year for untreated hearing impairments, according to the coalition’s report. How loud should you go when listening to music to not become part of these statistics? Not very high, according to the American Academy of Audiology. Noise-induced hearing loss can occur from any continued exposure to noise more than 85 decibels. To put this into perspective:

  • Normal conversations = 60 decibels
  • Dishwashers = 60 decibels
  • Alarm clocks = 80 decibels
  • MP3 players =  100 decibels at full volume—which is probably where you have the volume during a hard exercise session or during a race, where your music competes with lots of background noise

You also need to exercise caution in group fitness classes, as research shows these classes play music too loud as well. In a paper published in the Archives of Environment & Occupational Health, Australian researchers studied noise levels during 35 low-intensity and 65 high-intensity classes in 1997 to 1998, and again in 2009 to 2011. In high-intensity classes in the later time frame, decibels averaged 93.1—a level in which hearing loss can occur. In low-intensity classes, decibels dropped to 85.6, but that is still too high. Oddly enough, the 2009–2011 teachers preferred the music for high-intensity classes to be much louder than their clients did. So beyond ear plugs, you might not have much of a say. HealthyWay Further, a study from Australia’s National Acoustic Laboratories found that the music in fitness classes reaches almost as high a level as a jet engine. Oliver F. Adunka, MD, professor of otolaryngology and neurosurgery in the Department of Otolaryngology, Head, and Neck Surgery at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, does not provide any better news. He says hearing loss is a hidden disability; most people do not even notice it is happening—and you cannot turn it back once it begins. Hearing loss occurs when hair cells start to die in your ear, and “these hair cells do not regenerate. Once they are gone, they are gone.” HealthyWay So, what preventive measures can you take? Adunka recommends keeping a lower volume in your headphones—no matter if you wear big Beats by Dre headsets or small earbuds. “Even small headsets can produce high levels of sound,” he says, noting that people who exercise for more than an hour should definitely hit the down button. He also recommends only listening to one or two songs at a high volume before taking a listening break. Most importantly, he emphasizes, get a hearing test frequently. HealthyWay For group classes, Pollard advises wearing protective earmuffs or earplugs. “The problem with earplugs is that people do not wear them properly and are afforded little protection. It is best to find instructions online and practice till you get it right. If earplugs fall out, you are doing it wrong,” he says. Pollard also suggests wearing noise-canceling headphones that let you still hear the music.

The Flip Side of the Cassette

Runners who loathe music and enjoy the sound of their footsteps instead, as well as the added safety benefits, can also make their exercise experiences better.

Use the time to think.

In a Washington Post interview, Chris Friesen, director of Friesen Sport & Performance Psychology, said that running keeps your brain semi-activated and frees up lots of cognitive space. You don’t need to listen to anything to access the extra brain availability created by your run—”Even without music,” said Friesen, “running can put you in a state of mind to solve problems and think creatively.” Without music, you can spend your runs thinking through problems you are facing, brainstorming ideas for a work project, or setting new goals—it truly is the perfect time to do so. HealthyWay While Friesen did note benefits of listening to some form of media during runs, he also suggested that runners forgo music and opt for mindfulness: “When your negative thoughts or worries inevitably come up when running, you can practice acknowledging them for what they are—just thoughts and feelings that our brains are programmed to generate—and train your brain to not get hooked by or fused to them and to stay longer in the present moment.”

Appreciate the sport.

In a study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, researchers found that listening to music and watching videos during high-intensity exercise resulted in significantly less “perceived exertion” and significantly more “dissociative focus,” or thoughts about other things. This may be good for endurance, as we’ve seen, but it also detaches you from your body’s signals. HealthyWay

The Finish Line

If you prefer to jam out to your Spotify playlist, ensure you choose the appropriate music to keep your endurance level up; yet all the while, keep the noise level down. On the flip side, if you choose to listen to nothing but the sweet sounds of nature, use the time to contemplate, create, or listen to your body—your brain has the space. But whatever side you fall—pro-music or anti-music—you are working out and keeping yourself healthy. That should make you proud.