Exercise is good for your health. The U.S. Surgeon General recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week for adults to improve cardiovascular (CV) fitness.1 We all know regular exercise is good for your heart, but did you know it’s also good for your hearing health?
CV fitness increases the level of oxygen in the blood feeding your entire circulatory system, even the tiniest capillaries. With respect to hearing, it improves the performance of the ear, which senses sound, and the brain, which processes sound.
Researchers believe cardiovascular fitness contributes to better neural functioning in the cochlea, the auditory portion of the inner ear, especially the sensory outer hair cells. A good cardio workout brings ample supplies of oxygen-rich blood to all the detailed structures and bones of the inner ear.
Regular workouts “train” your ears to function better. There is also a theory that people who have a high level of cardiovascular fitness may face decreased auditory damage from noise pollution, certain medications, and disease because their ears have become “stronger” (higher functioning) to begin with.2
Improved blood flow to the brain also aids in hearing. Much of what we “hear” happens when our brains translate sound waves into meaning. This is called auditory processing. A brain “on exercise” can better sort and identify the sounds we hear. Hearing health is not simply the ability to hear better, but to better process what is heard.
Many studies confirm improved aerobic fitness boosts cognitive processing speed, motor function, and visual and auditory attention. Highly oxygenated blood is good for your brain; poorly oxygenated blood, tainted with excessive cholesterol, triglycerides, and sugar, risks your health in many ways, including your hearing.
Just keep moving: any prolonged low-impact exercise that raises your pulse and respiratory rate for 20-30 minutes is aerobic and CV-beneficial. Walking, running, biking, dancing, rowing, skiing, and swimming are among the most popular aerobic activities. Exercises that start and stop, like weight and resistance training, have health benefits and may build muscle mass, but their positive impact on long-term health comes in combination with aerobics. If you prefer weight and resistance training, do them in addition to your 20-30 minutes of aerobics. Why not warm up on a stationary bike before starting resistance training or playing sports?
Beyond your dedicated exercise regimen, there are things you can do to improve your lifestyle. It sounds obvious, but simply walking more is a small change that can really add up. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or pick the parking space farthest from the door when driving to work or going out for errands to walk the extra hundred yards each way.
Many people like to exercise to music. But excessive sound pressure levels can cause permanent damage to your ears, undoing all the good your workout is doing. The risk of permanent hearing loss increases with just five minutes of exposure a day at full volume.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, if you use earbuds (in-ear headphones), don’t listen more than 1.5 hours per day at 80 percent volume or less. You can safely increase to approximately 4.5 hours per day, if you decrease to 70 percent volume or less.3 Balance a safe volume level with a safe duration. These rules also apply to traditional headphones.
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that age-related hearing loss affects 1 in 3 Americans over 65; almost half of those over 75 have hearing difficulties.4 With the exception of genetically based hearing loss, in most cases, maintaining cardiovascular fitness will help maintain your hearing as well. Whether your hearing is excellent, or you’ve experienced some hearing loss, maintain the best hearing you can by improving your overall CV fitness.
Talk to a professional about any concerns you have about hearing loss. If it’s close enough, maybe you can even walk to your appointment.
1DHHS. Surgeon General’s website. https://www.surgeongeneral.gov/priorities/prevention/strategy/active-living.html. Accessed July 9, 2018.
2Alessio HM, Hutchinson Marron K. Fitness and better hearing. In: Carmen RE, ed. The Consumer Handbook on Hearing Loss & Hearing Aids: A Bridge to Healing. 4th ed. Sedona, Arizona: Aurical Ink Publishers; 2014.
3Cleveland Clinic Safety Guide. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/headphone-and-ear-bud-use-safety-guide/. Published February 13, 2014. Accessed July 9, 2018.
4National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders website. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/age-related-hearing-loss#1. Updated June 29, 2017. Accessed July 9, 2018.