Health & Wellness

Is It Safe to Wear a Face Mask While Working Out?

If you have to wear a face mask to exercise during the coronavirus pandemic, here's how to stay safe.

Wearing a face mask for everyday activities requires a bit of adjustment, even if it’s just for a quick run in the supermarket. So if your breathing starts to get heavier during a series of jump squats, chances are good that you will feel like starting it right away.

Unfortunately, gyms are known for the spread of germs and tend to fill up with people, making them one of the settings where the widespread use of masks could really be worth it. If your gym has reopened and you want to feel as comfortable as possible while exercising with a face mask, here is everything you need to know.

After months of doing Zoom Pilates in your living room (and trying to keep your cat off camera), there’s nothing quite like that first outdoor run, even if it’s a million degrees outside. If you’re getting back into your exercise routine again, you may be wondering how your sleek new mask is affecting your body while you exercise.

Masks may seem like a snag when it comes to sweating, but if you’re in public, or particularly indoors like gyms, experts tell Bustle yes, you should wear them if you don’t want to potentially expose your sweaty buddies to the coronavirus. (Of course, you should stay home if you feel sick, but because so much spread of the coronavirus comes from asymptomatic people, you can never be too careful.) You may notice some interesting changes in your body’s reactions to that masked lifting session.

“Right now there isn’t much research on the exact physiological responses of wearing a mask during exercise,” Melissa Morris, an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist at the University of Tampa and an adviser to QuickQuote, an insurance service, tells Bustle. “Based on anecdotal evidence and limited research, wearing a mask can increase heart rate, restrict breathing, cause lightheadedness, and increase body temperature.” Neither of these things means you can’t train in a mask, and you can always re-replay at home if it’s too uncomfortable.

How to wear a mask to exercise feels different

The first thing you may notice during a mask workout is the difference in your breathing. “We know that wearing a mask limits air flow and can affect oxygen consumption,” says Morris. Your body needs a higher intake of oxygen during exercise as it works hard to lift those weights or run that course. The masks slightly impede air flow, so you’ll probably be breathing quite hard. (One big caveat: The idea of ​​carbon dioxide retention, that masks could trap CO2 near the mouth and make you dizzy, is a common topic of conversation against the masks, but doctors have pretty much debunked this, pointing out that medical professionals generally wear Masks for hours without harmful effects.)

You may notice that your heart rate and body temperature increase when you exercise with a mask. “There is an increase in body temperature from the heat that is trapped inside the mask, leading to rapid overheating and exhaustion,” Jaclyn Fulop, a licensed physical therapist and clinical director of the Exchange Physical Therapy Group, tells Bustle . That increase in body heat and the relative difficulty in extracting oxygen will also mean that your heart works harder than it usually does. Prepare to get really sweaty, drink plenty of water, and feel your heart pounding in your chest.

Although your body is working very hard, it may not reach the milestones you would expect. A study published in Sports in 2016 of eight people found that wearing a mask during resistance exercises, such as weightlifting, made people feel like they were working harder, but actually showed less muscle performance than people who performed. the same movements without a mask. However, your aerobic routine may be slightly less affected. A 2020 study published in the Journal of Human Sport and Exercise found that surgical masks did not appear to affect the performance of people pedaling on exercise bikes. This all depends on your individual cardiovascular rate and how much exercise you do, so watch your own performance carefully.

“Honestly, the difference is not that important,” exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, spokesman for the anti-inflammatory gel Voltaren, told Bustle. “The most notable impact is the psychology of trying to exercise with a mask.” If you’re uncomfortable with a mask, he says, you can reflexively contract your muscles, changing the way your body reacts to exercise. If you feel tense, take a deep breath and try to relax before moving on to the next repetition.

How to exercise comfortably during the pandemic

The masks really help protect against the coronavirus, even if you have to adjust your expectations and routine. The advice published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in June 2020 noted that if you are not ill and have respiratory symptoms, wearing a mask is safe and will help control the spread of the disease through respiratory drops. Fulop recommends that if you are going to do heavy exercise, you should do it outdoors in a remote area away from others, which means that it is not strictly necessary to wear a mask. However, if you exercise in a gym or with a group, wearing a mask will protect you and those around you. Some chains, such as Planet Fitness, require customers who attend reopened gyms to wear masks, although Planet Fitness later adjusted its policy not to require the use of masks during training itself.

Specific exercise masks are a good idea if you want to sweat. “A cloth or cotton mask is a better option than a surgical mask during exercise because it can get wet during exercise,” says Morris. That makes the material heavier and more difficult to breathe, but it also means that it is washable. Fulop explains that wet masks are also less helpful when it comes to protecting against the coronavirus. “They can become permeable to particles, which means they don’t protect from harmful bacteria in the air,” she says. The National Health Organization recommends changing a wet mask as soon as possible for this reason. Go for a mask that wicks away moisture if you can, or look for specific masks made for athletes. “Thinner masks will allow for easier air passage, while thicker masks may require a stronger exhalation,” says McCall. The BMJ also suggests wearing a second mask to replace a wet one during the session, while trying not to touch your face.

Morris says that you should listen to your body if you exercise with a face mask. “If you feel overheated or groggy, take a break or take time to recover,” she says. “It might also be a good idea to facilitate exercise with a mask by dividing your routine into shorter sessions or slowly increasing the length of your exercise session.” And, as always, disinfect your hands and wash your masks immediately after your session. Anyway, they’ll probably be gross at the gym sock level.

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