Wearing a Mask During Exercise: Should You Do It?


While wearing a mask everywhere we go is becoming more normal, there are still questions that arise with new situations.

Should I wear a mask to walk my dog? To go to an outdoor event? To exercise?

Especially with exercise, there are several factors to consider when deciding if wearing a face covering is warranted, or desirable. Let’s get into some evidence regarding masks, their effects on exercise, and what to consider in your decision making.

Not all masks are created equal. There are distinct differences between a fabric mask, surgical mask, and N95 or respirator mask. The materials they're made of determines what type of particles can pass through.

Evidence of wearing masks in general settings

The effectiveness of fabric or cloth masks depends upon the number of layers and the thread count of the material. If there are large spaces between fibers, it can allow larger and more particles to pass through.

Should you wear a mask while exercisingSurgical masks are made with material that intentionally has very small spaces between the fibers (between 1-10 micrometers). With pores that small, particles associated with scents and some bare viruses are able to pass through, but bacteria and particles bound in water droplets are too large. 

N95 masks are unique in that they are specially fitted to the wearer. They create an impermeable seal around the nose and mouth and have even smaller pores to filter the air and particles that pass through. The FDA has more information here on different types of masks.

So why do you need to know about these different mask types? The effectiveness of your face covering is important to consider when entering into a public space. Here’s what some research studies have to say regarding mask use and risk of infection:

  • One study found that healthcare workers who wore cloth face coverings had a significantly higher risk of becoming sick with flu-like diseases compared to their counterparts who wore surgical masks.
  • In another study comparing surgical masks and N95 masks, researchers concluded that healthcare workers who wore surgical masks were at a higher risk of COVID-19 infection compared to those who wore N95 masks. 
  • A third study found that N95 masks were more effective at preventing the transmission of COVID-19 than surgical or similar masks.
  • The same study also looked at the impacts of physical distancing and eye protection and found that a physical distance of one meter or more and the use of eye protection both significantly reduced the transmission of COVID-19.

Evidence of wearing masks during exercise

So far, there's been little research regarding protective masks and exercise. But there's been one study that looked at the physiological effects of wearing a surgical or N95 mask during exercise.

This study looked at the cardiovascular and metabolic impacts of wearing a mask during exercise. Here is what they found:

  • Wearing a mask (either surgical or N95) significantly lowered pulmonary function factors. Translation: breathing during exercise was less powerful and less efficient.
  • Cardiac output was similar both with and without the mask. None of the participants had an abnormal heart rate response when exercising with the mask.
  • All participants noted discomfort, particularly when wearing the N95 masks.

The participants were healthy males between 35-45 years old.

Anyone outside of this population cannot expect to have the same outcomes as these participants. It is important to pay attention to what your body is telling you during exercise to be safe.

How to decide whether to wear a mask while exercising

The first step in deciding whether to wear a mask during exercise is LOCATION. If you're working out at home or outside, you could probably do without. If you're going to a gym, make sure that you check their policies prior to your visit.

We've already talked about how to know whether your face covering is actually effective. You can read more about it here.

Beyond knowing whether it's actually protecting you, consider whether it will negatively impact your performance.

As previously mentioned, there's little data to support or oppose working out with a mask. If you feel compelled to wear a mask while exercising, a personal trial might be your best bet.

If you begin to experience dizziness, light-headedness, excessive sweating, or nausea, it’s probably time to take off the mask and get some air (and water).

Finally: comfort. You want to consider the overall comfort of wearing a mask while exercising. This includes the temperature and humidity inside and outside different masks during exercise. Most study participants claim that the N95 is less comfortable than a surgical mask when exercising, and almost all prefer to exercise without a mask.

Conclusion

Again, the choice is yours. Hopefully, this provided some insights for your consideration; the most important thing is to stay active and stay hydrated!

We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences of wearing a mask while exercising. Share your thoughts and personal experiences in the comments below.