Including whether you should be working out in one at all.
by Nathan Reilly Sep 23, 2020
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In May, a 26-year-old jogger’s lung collapsed in Wuhan, China, allegedly as a result of him wearing a face mask while exercising, the UK's Sun reported. Although his doctors said he was predisposed to pneumothorax, a condition in which air makes its way between the lungs and chest wall and presses on the lungs until they collapse, his incident still raises concern for those of us who want to follow coronavirus safety protocols and equally maintain mask safety.
Here, experts unearth just how safe rocking a face mask during a workout is, and the best ways to keep protected while exercising in one.
Face masks can compromise breathing.
Because face masks cover your mouth and nose, wearing one while exercising can hinder the amount of oxygen that enters into your lungs, says Marilyn Moffat, P.T., D.P.T., Ph.D., a professor of physical therapy at New York University and author of Cardiovascular/Pulmonary Essentials. This can not only make it more difficult for you to breathe, but it can also decrease the amount of oxygen that spreads throughout your exercising muscles. When that happens, your body struggles to convert glucose into energy, a process that allows your muscles to perform contractions and enact basic movements.
Muscle contractions are also responsible for your ability to, say, jog for extended periods of time or increase in weight when you lift, making a consistent flow of oxygen essential to a successful workout. But whether wearing a mask means you’re going to experience a lack of oxygen is a bit more complex.
Here are some things to consider before working out in a face mask:
Your oxygen uptake really depends on your routine, Andrea Fornarola, a certified fitness expert and head trainer at Elements Fitness Studio in East Hampton, New York, tells Intrigue. Cardio workouts, like high-intensity interval training, burpees, and long-distance running, increase the amount of oxygen your body needs to perform these activities. If the amount you’re able to inhale is compromised by a face mask, exercises that require more oxygen to execute are probably best to avoid, she says.
She also expresses caution for inversion exercises, like upside down yoga, which can decrease heart rate and increase blood pressure and ultimately, make it more difficult for your heart to pump blood throughout your body.
The best way to keep your breathing under control, she says, is through slow and contained movements, like walking and light interval training. Since your overall goal is to avoid a spiked heartrate and derailed breathing, you also want to perform repetitions in smaller increments.
Your environment also plays a pretty big role in your safety and can determine your ability to work out without concern.
When weather permits, opt to exercise outdoors and alone, recommends Fornarola. Reason being? The open space and isolation allow you to exercise mask-free, which automatically makes it easier to breathe.
If you have to be indoors in a space that’s not your home, seek climate-controlled environments with air conditioning and high-efficiency filtration systems, recommends Dr. Moffat. That way, you’re less likely to overheat and inhale contaminants that can potentially make you sick.
To find out about your gym’s air filtration system, a call to the manager should tell you what you need to know.
Lastly, you want to consider your mask’s material. Masks manufactured from lightweight fabric such as cotton as well as those that are waterproof or dry quickly can make it easier for you to inhale, says Dr. Moffat. Heavier materials, like those used to manufacture N95 respirators, can make it more difficult for you to obtain the air flow you need, while those saturated in sweat can more easily cling to your face.
You should also be mindful about your mask’s fit. Those that are too big or loose can accidentally be inhaled during a workout, says Fornarola. While you probably won’t suffocate, you might still experience a few moments of panic until you extract the material from your mouth.
To avoid this, she recommends ensuring your mask fits snugly over your nose and under your chin before you begin your workout. Not to mention a proper fit also slows the spread of COVID-19, which is really the goal here.
So, are face masks safe to wear during a workout?
Theoretically, it is safe to exercise in a face mask, says Dr. Moffat, although she warns against possible symptoms of oxygen deprivation, like shortness of breath, dizziness, and lightheadedness.
While a certain level of breathing difficulty during a workout can be expected, predisposed conditions such as anemia, sleep apnea, and asthma can increase your risk for hypoxemia, a condition caused by below-normal oxygen levels that can quickly lead to wheezing, confusion, and changes in skin coloration, per Cleveland Clinic. In more severe cases, hypoxemia can even result in heart and brain dysfunction.
If you experience symptoms of oxygen deprivation, your best bet is to take a break and only resume exercise once you feel well again, preferably at a lower intensity level, says Dr. Moffat.
You might even consider monitoring your vitals using a pulse oximeter, a non-invasive device that you can clip onto your finger just before a workout, to measure the oxygen levels in your blood as you exercise. (You can buy them on Amazon, some for under $30.)
Healthy levels typically range from 95 to 100 percent, while values under 90 percent are considered low and should be immediately evaluated by a healthcare professional, she says.