(Re)learning to run without headphones

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

In this delightful essay in The Atlantic, writer Talmon Joseph Smith describes what happened one day when he was out on a run and his smartphone, the source of the almost constant soundtrack accompaniment to his daily life, died. He titled his essay “Learning to Run Without Headphones,” but my guess is that he knew how to run before he discovered headphones. But he certainly rediscovered the joys of listening to the world around him and thinking his own thoughts without being distracted by a constant soundtrack.

The World Health Organization calls a music player and associated headphones or earbuds a “personal audio system.” A 2017 Nielsen survey reported in Forbes Magazine found that the average American listens to a PAS for 4.5 hours a day, up sharply from 3.8 hours daily in 2016 and only 3.3 hours daily in 2015. And a 2017 report is already out of date.

I can’t access the report myself, so I don’t know if they only surveyed PAS users or the entire population. If the survey group included the entire population, including people like me who never listen to a PAS, the number of hours PAS users listen to their devices is much greater than 4.5 hours daily.

PAS use has already been shown to cause hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in children as young as 11. It’s probably doing the same to adult ears, too.

The tag line on a popular credit card advertisement asks, “What’s in your wallet?” Concerning PAS use, I would ask, “What’s in your ears?” If you’re turning up the volume loud enough to drown out the rumble in the subway car, or other conversations in the bus, on your daily commute, or traffic noise when running or walking, you’re probably damaging your hearing.

And just as important, you’re missing out on important time with your own thoughts, as well as the sounds of nature if you’re outdoors.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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