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Do I need to wear a mask when I exercise?

Last Modified: 7/10/2020

Exercise mask

This post was written by Mackenzie Clark, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS and Rachael Bouwmeester, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, Parkview Sports Medicine.

Summer is a great time to get moving! There are so many great activities that only come around this time of year, and let’s face it, it’s just more enjoyable to exercise outside when the weather is warm. But with social distancing and mask wearing still highly recommended, and safety a top concern, how can you enjoy being active while still protecting yourself and others from COVID-19?

Do I need to wear a mask?

It’s highly recommended to wear a mask if you will be exercising around other people, especially indoors at a gym where the air circulation is less likely to dissipate the novel coronavirus. The use of a mask will reduce the risk of infecting someone if you unknowingly carry the disease, but it will also affect how the exercise affects you. 

Is it safe to exercise with a mask on?

Covering your face during exercise increases the risk for potential breathing restriction and discomfort, and it requires time for your body to adapt. For example, when football athletes begin summer training, they always take a few days to allow their bodies to acclimatize to the heat and physical exertion with their heavy equipment on in order to prevent heat illness and heat stroke. Adding a mask as part of your “workout gear” is very similar, and is safe when your body can gradually adapt to it. 

How can I start wearing a mask safely?

If you are exercising with a face mask on, it’s best to slowly increase intensity from one workout to the next so you’re aware of how your body reacts to something covering your mouth and nose. Even with workouts you’re used to, you may feel lightheaded or notice a more rapid heart rate. While wearing a mask, you can anticipate that your heart rate will be higher at the same relative intensity as you were used to before wearing the mask, likely about 8-10 beats higher per minute. Breathing rates can also double or even quadruple. You may want to wear a heart rate monitor or a fitness watch to ensure you remain within your target heart rate zone. 

As with all things related to exercise, people will respond to wearing of a mask individually and need to monitor their symptoms to ensure their own safety. The human body is constantly adapting to the environment around it and will do so when it isn’t suddenly “shocked” with something new, but rather gradually introduced to it.

What are some signs that my mask is too restrictive?

The most common signs that your mask may be too restrictive is lightheadedness and dizziness. Wearing a face mask while exercising can cause you to feel overheated more quickly as well. If you’re not feeling well while exercising with a mask, stop the exercise, socially distance yourself if possible and remove your mask.

Is there a certain type of mask I should wear?

Try to avoid wearing paper surgical masks while working out. These masks become wet faster than a cloth mask or a moisture-wicking mask. You can also try wearing a buff, which is a garment worn from your nose to your neck. Air can flow from the bottom of the buff, which lessens restriction and makes it easier to breathe.

What are some safer exercises/activities that I can do while wearing a mask?

Wearing a mask while exercising can significantly increase your heart rate, especially while doing high intensity training. Because of that, try to avoid exercises like high intensity interval training (HIIT), heavy weight lifting, plyometrics, sprinting and intense cardio exercises.

Decreasing the amount of time you are working out, as well as decreasing the repetitions or weight load are other ways you can modify your workout as you begin exercising with a mask on.

You may want to opt for low-impact activities like walking, light biking and weight training with lighter weights. Try exercising outdoors as well, like hiking or trail walking.

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