Wearing a Mask During Workouts Really Isn’t So Bad
Two new studies found little downside to donning masks during vigorous exercise. And wearing a mask may do much good.
Exercising during the pandemic has been challenging for many of us. Gyms have closed or limited occupancy, as have parks, pools, pathways and other recreational facilities. If trails are open, they often are jammed, making it difficult to socially distance while we hike, stroll, ride, jog or otherwise work out.
Mask recommendations and requirements have created additional complications. Few people who exercise, including me, don masks with enthusiasm when it comes to vigorous workouts, convinced that they will make our faces sweaty, breathing labored and workouts more draining. We rejigger the timing and locales of our runs and rides so we can exercise when few other people are about and leave our faces uncovered. Or we skip workouts altogether.
But for those of us convinced that wearing a mask will make exercise harder or more unpleasant, two new studies offer a bracing counterpoint. Both find that masks do not negatively affect vigorous workouts, whether the mask is cloth, surgical or an N95 respirator model. The findings may surprise but also encourage anyone hoping to remain safe and active in the coming weeks and months, as coronavirus cases surge nationwide.
Most of our expectations about masks and exercise are based on anecdotes and preconceptions. Little past science has examined whether and how masks affect serious workouts. The few relevant earlier experiments focused primarily on masked health care workers while they walked, to see if being active while masked affected their thinking or other capabilities. (It did not, the studies show.)
But gentle strolling is not running, cycling or other more vigorous routines, and we have not had scientific evidence about how wearing a mask might alter those workouts. So, recently, two helpful groups of scientists separately decided to look into the issue.
The first of the groups to release their findings, which were published in September in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, concentrated on surgical and N95 respiratory masks during exercise. The researchers, most of them affiliated with the Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, Israel, invited 16 healthy, active adult men to come into the lab, where they checked heart rates, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, respiratory rates and current carbon dioxide levels. Then they fitted the men with thin, nasal tubes that would collect their expired breaths for testing and, on three separate visits to the lab, asked them to ride a stationary bicycle.