Tuning Out Background Noise: A Surprising Benefit Of Exercise

According to a new study published in the journal Sports Health, athletes are better at tuning out background noise than non-athletes.


By Danielle Zickl |

  • Athletes are better at tuning out background noise than non-athletes, according to a new study published in the journal Sports Health.
  • Factors going into better auditory processing likely include training to peak physical conditioning, maintaining a healthy diet, and constantly dialing their auditory system to react in noisy settings like races.

How do they not hear all that background noise? It’s impressive when a basketball player can knock down a free throw at a rival’s arena as jeering fans try to distract them from behind the backboard, right?

The fact that the athletes have to block out crowd noise, loud music, and other distractions around them to stay focused isn’t just a result of grit and training—they may actually be reducing external sound on a physiological level, too, according to new research out of Northwestern University.

In the study published in the journal Sports Health, researchers looked at the sound-processing abilities of 470 male and female Division I athletes—covering 19 different teams at Northwestern— to assess their response to sound, particularly background noise.

To do this, they used a technique called frequency-following response (FFR), which captures neural activity in the midbrain, where auditory signals are processed. FFR records the microsecond-fast reactions to auditory input and subsequent neural activity.

They compared those results with FFR tests done on 443 non-athletes in the same age range and found the athletes were much better at “turning down” non-essential auditory signals without needing conscious awareness to do so.

Although only Division I athletes were tested, it’s possible that everyday athletes might develop the same ability to some degree, according to Nina Kraus, Ph.D., lead study author and director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University.

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“Often, what’s seen at the extremes, such as elite athletes in this case, are applicable to a lesser extent in the general population,” she told Bicycling.

This may be especially true if you adopt lifestyle habits that emulate top athletes. The researchers hypothesized that the factors going into the better auditory processing likely include training to peak physical conditioning, maintaining a healthy diet, and constantly honing their auditory system to react in noisy settings (like races).

In addition to helping athletes perform better, this may also be a way to help those with sensory processing issues and head injuries, she added. For instance, playing sports could help those who’ve struggled with a concussion because it may enhance auditory processing, which can be disrupted with a head injury, Kraus said.

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And overall, this may be one more piece of evidence that exercise can be a big boost for brain health overall.

“The way we process sound is incredibly complex in terms of what it requires from the brain,” Kraus said. Because of that, developing better sound-processing ability may be beneficial for “toning” the brain and its functionality.

More research will need to be done to determine if being on a team leads to better noise-blocking ability or if individual athletes block background noise better on their own, she added. Another big research direction will be testing athletes of different ages. For example, it’s worth knowing if participating in a sport—or even just increasing the amount of exercise we get as we grow older—could help mitigate age-related changes in hearing ability.

At any rate, getting on your bike for even as little as 20 minutes a day packs some serious benefits for your brain and body overall.

READ MORE ON: background noise health benefits of cycling sound

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