Around the world, masking rules and regulations continue to evolve. As gyms open and close or capacity limits decrease, individuals need to continue to be cautious and respectful of others. Fortunately, research suggests that it is safe for healthy individuals to wear a mask while exercising while reducing the risk of contracting or transmitting COVID-19. In general, it is recommended that individuals start exercising at a lower intensity to get used to wearing a face covering before returning to regular levels of intensity.
In one study, subjects perceived to have less airflow while wearing a mask during exercise, but the data showed no difference in blood, tissue or muscle oxygenation levels. This may be caused by psychological factors such as feeling claustrophobic or thinking there would be a decreased airflow and therefore their rating of perceived exertion (RPE) was higher.
When we breathe, speak, cough, or sneeze, particles are discharged into the air. The size, velocity, and trajectory of these particles varies during exercise, as you are using your lungs more forcefully to breathe out and in. Current research has demonstrated that wearing a mask not only helps protect others but helps protect the wearer, too. Although a single layer of cloth is better than nothing, multiple layers with higher thread counts showed significantly better results, even with particles smaller than 1 micron.
Researchers recommend that people wear masks indoors while exercising, especially when people may be breathing more forcefully due to vigorous exercise. If a mask or face covering gets wet with respirations droplets or sweat, it’s a good idea to have a dry replacement or try using more sweat-resistant masks. Masks that are made out of polyester or silk are more sweat resistant compared to surgical masks, which tend to fall apart when they get wet or sweaty.
When to wear a mask:
- Always when inside unless you’re by yourself or in your home
- Outside if others will be within 6-10 feet of you, but you may pull it down when the area has cleared
Health/safety concerns when wearing a mask:
- Possible increased heart rate
- Possible increased breathing rate
- Possible headache
- Possible dizziness/lightheadedness
Health/safety concerns when NOT wearing a mask:
- Contracting COVID-19
- Spreading the virus (with or without being symptomatic)
- Other severe illnesses
Individuals with chronic diseases should exercise alone in their own homes without a mask and with supervision, if necessary. Those who have comorbidities and participate in exercise should be aware that face coverings may increase the body’s physiological responses. It’s best to start off at a lower intensity and gradually increase the intensity, possibly over a couple of months. Staying active is important but staying safe is paramount.
Embracing universal masking policies in fitness facilities can help avoid future lockdowns, especially when these policies are combined with other interventions such as social distancing, frequent handwashing and effective ventilation systems. Wearing masks can also make others feel more comfortable being back in public exercise spaces. Of course, as virologist Paul Digard of the University of Edinburgh notes, “Masks work, but they are not infallible… therefore, keep your distance.”