Wearing a Face Mask While Exercising: The Do’s and Don’ts

Updated on April 22nd, 2021
Face Masks and Exercise

As per the CDC, the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, causes COVID-19 to be mainly transmitted by respiratory droplets. The best way to block these droplets, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, is to wear face protection, like a cloth mask [1].

However, face masks have been somewhat controversial in the United States, with several expressing concerns about whether they can hamper breathing [2]. Specifically, people have raised questions about whether masks might cause any performance or safety issues during exercise.

But new research in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health has observed that mask-wearing appears to have virtually no harmful effects during vigorous exercise.

What the study found

In their research, the scientists evaluated surgical masks and cloth masks since they are commonly available to the general public. These were compared to being mask free. 14, healthy young adults (7 men and 7 women) took part in the research.

Every research participant completed a cycle ergometry test (riding a stationary bike) to exhaustion while wearing either a cloth mask, surgical mask, or no mask.

Scientists randomly determined in what sequence participants would test each mask. During testing, young adults blood oxygen levels were measured through pulse oximetry.

Their TOI (tissue oxygenation index) was also measured using a tool known as NIRS (near-infrared spectroscopy) in their muscle in the thigh (vastus lateralis).

When the scientists examined the data from this testing, they noted that wearing face masks did not affect peak power or performance (time to exhaustion).

There were also no differences found in blood oxygen levels, tissue oxygenation index, perceived physical exertion, or heart rate. Nor was there any detectable adverse effect on exercise performance or blood or muscle oxygenation.

[Read: How Much Should You Exercise To Boost Your Immunity]

What does this study tell us?

This research tells us that exercise performance is not affected by wearing a face mask. This research is consistent with other studies that have been done on this topic.

However,  while it may tell us about how mask-wearing affects athletic performance, it cannot and should not take away from the person’s lived experience.

There is little proof to back issues for individuals with breathing issues or asthma. However, it is imperative to note that many individuals with chronic and acute respiratory conditions also have panic or anxiety attacks.

Sometimes the apprehension of feeling restricted from breathing through the masks propagates the trigger or perception of breathing issues.

Many studies indicate that people with respiratory conditions should seek further evaluation before exercising or wearing a mask.

Face Masks and Exercise

What to know about wearing a mask during exercise

There are 3 principal factors that you will need to consider when it comes to wearing a face-mask during exercise: cardio versus strength training (a type of exercise), low versus high (the intensity of the exercise), and the type of face-covering you’ll be wearing [4].

Cardio exercises like cycling and running would be more affected by mask-wearing. While face coverings do not remarkably affect oxygen intake, it affects many individuals’ abilities to breathe comfortably. People doing this kind of exercise would likely need to lower their intensity initially and take longer recovery breaks.

However, after some weeks of wearing a face-covering during this type of activity, people will acclimate and be able to work at, or near, their usual intensity levels with little to no impact on performance.

[Read: How to Wear a Face Mask: Dos and Don’ts]

People performing a high-intensity exercise, such as HIIT (high-intensity interval training), are the primary ones who will be affected.

If you are doing lower-intensity exercises, such as going for a leisurely walk or basic weight training, you may not feel the same effects from wearing a mask.

However, if you begin to feel dizzy or lightheaded, you should stop exercising right away and go somewhere away from other individuals so you can remove your face mask and catch your breath.

Disposable, 3-ply face masks are suggested for exercise. They are more breathable and don’t tend to become saturated with respiratory droplets and sweat the same way that cloth made masks do.

More and more athletic firms are coming out with face masks geared toward athletic performance, but you may need to test out a few types until you find the best one for you. You might also want to bring a few other masks with you so you can change them out if the mask becomes moisture dense.

Make sure that any face mask you’re wearing covers your mouth and nose. This will do the best job of capturing respiratory droplets.

[Read: The Science Behind the Use of Face Masks]

How Long Should We Put On A Face Mask?

According to the WHO (World Health Organization), it is suggested that you do not cover your mouth and nose for more than 20 minutes. Rather, you can remove it and breathe in some fresh air in an isolated area.

The use of face masks is to be used only in densely crowded places and not otherwise. This will ensure that you are getting sufficient amounts of oxygen.

What Happens If You Wear Face Mask During Exercise?

Your lungs breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Wearing face masks, particularly during exercising, can trap high levels of carbon dioxide, causing:

  • Vertigo
  • Headaches
  • Suffocation
  • Seizures
  • Drowsiness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Unconsciousness
  • Muscle tremor
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Blurry vision

All of the above symptoms take place majorly due to lack of oxygen. This is known as hypercapnia, which is caused by rebreathing your own exhaled carbon dioxide if the face mask is worn for prolonged periods.

Bottom Line

Using a face mask while exercising is not a great idea and can result in deadly lung complications. If you are a fitness freak and badly need exercising, consider quarantining yourself at home until things get a little normal.

You wouldn’t want to come in contact with the fatal COVID-19 virus and so make it a point to use face masks properly and practice social distancing. Stay home, stay safe!

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