By the sign-in desk at cushy fitness studios, I often see jars of two complementary items. Hair ties (thoughtful) and earplugs (disaster). If an exercise studio thinks I might want earplugs, I know I’m moments away from walking my ears into the internal hub of an airplane engine. I know they’ve set up our fake bicycles directly inside a stadium-grade speaker. I’m about to feel the sound barrier break before me.
And I always seem to be the only person who takes the free earplugs! I don’t want to take them. They’re awful. Squishing around with earplugs in your ears feels like you’re both underwater and also growing marshmallows out of your head. At one dance studio, the earplugs were neon and glowed in the studio’s black-light, peeping out from my hair like dorky rave spores. Being a safety nerd is already embarrassing. The accessories of self-protection telegraph that I’m hyper-cautious and precious. And judgmental! I don’t want anyone to think I value my ears more than they value theirs! I want to tell them, I only take up the earplugs because my childhood best friend, Natalie, studied audiology and frightened me weekly about the risks of hearing degradation.
I know not everyone is lucky enough to have a childhood best friend Natalie. But for the rest of you poor souls, there is the Evidence. On the record, fitness classes have been too loud since 1997! Julia Belluz at Vox compiled an astounding report which quotes exercise instructors, speaking anonymously, confessing that some days, their ears hurt more than their muscles. They’re diagnosed with early onset hearing loss and worry that they’ll lose their jobs if they say anything. In the New York Times, Alexandra E. Petri reported scary new evidence: After shouting several days a week for hours at a time, instructors paralyze their vocal cords and develop nodes that often require surgery. “We see so many voice patients who work in fitness,” childhood best friend Natalie texts me.
Unmitigated proof that studios damage our body’s communication architecture hasn’t quieted anything down. But you knew that. Evidence doesn’t matter, evidence never matters, we’ve never cared about evidence. You know what we pay attention to? Loud shouting!! Which I can do!! I can yell in letters right here to: Make your class quieter!! Please! You’re not the club! You’ll never be the club!!
I think these intense, clannish fitness classes create deafening noise dungeons to approximate a ravey-clubby atmosphere. Particularly, I suspect these classes model their noise levels after clubs, because of this infamous nightclub trick: Louder music absorbs people in the environment, if noise is at pain level they feel like they’re having more experience, and that’s measured at a bar by drinking more. First, that’s because we’re stressed out that you’re sandblasting our faces with remixes!
And at the gym, we’re just trying to be good to ourselves. Don’t make us pay the price of tinnitus!! Tinnitus, the false perception of sound caused by noise exposure and associated with hearing loss, manifests in several iterations. Each is more stressful than the last! A permanent tea kettle screaming, directly into your brain, I’M DONNNEEEE REMOVE ME FROM FIRE! A freaking cicada chilling inside your head! Lingering static! A screeching train, constantly coming to a halt in your ear canal.
I can’t get into everything about decibels with you, but a study about cycling classes found that the average noise level for a class is equivalent to a power mower or, more nostalgically, a newspaper press. This noise level is in breach of the United States Department of Labor standards for a safe working environment. Wait did I just lose you at “Department of Labor”!? Come back to me!! I’m yelling!!
Maybe we just need something really cute and little and needy and helpless to root for, so that we each protest our gyms to turn down the volume. I have just the sweetest thing: the adorable, teeny-tiny microscopic cilia that line our ears and help us hear. The average person is born as a cute baby with 16,000 of these sweet lil Bambi-eyelash hairs in their cochlea. The cochlea is shaped like a snail, which is also sooooo cute. And even though these hairs are itty cherubs, they work so hard. They work like an inverse piano, eensy strings converting vibrations! Because they’re perfect, permanent babies, they can’t replace themselves. They’re so skittish and gentle! And if they get trampled by the monster noises too often, they won’t come back and our hearing goes with them. Meanwhile, everyone is trying very hard to regenerate them!! But they haven’t done it yet!! So in the meantime, if only for these tiny cuties in the ears of every instructor who has ever counted down from a sprint, should we ask the fitness studio to de-club itself?