Is it safe to exercise while wearing a mask?

Beatrice Go
Is it safe to exercise while wearing a mask?
Rappler talks to sports science professionals on the safety of wearing face masks while exercising


MANILA, Philippines –  As face masks are now required when exercising in most public spaces, athletes and fitness enthusiasts may experience difficulty breathing and lightheadedness from working out. (EXPLAINER: When can sports resume amid coronavirus pandemic?)

Some choose to take off their masks or refuse to wear one, especially when they’re “in the zone,” but these options violate public health safety measures or may be detrimental to one’s health. 

Rappler speaks to sports science professionals who express their personal opinions on wearing a face mask while doing different physical activities. 

What are the safety hazards of exercising while wearing a face mask?  A face mask will generally obstruct oxygen flow to the body due to the number of layers and filters it has. With the added effort to inhale, it will affect our energy while doing different activities, including exercise.  

Rehabilitation medicine and sports consultant Nestor Santiago said the person’s oxygen flow while wearing a mask depends on the intensity of the workout. 

Young and healthy individuals will be able to adjust to low-intensity exercises such as jogging, leisure biking and weight training, despite having a slightly limited oxygen flow.  

But as intensity picks up, people will experience fatigue and difficulty in breathing faster. 

“This might be dangerous as they may lose consciousness due to hypoxia,” said Santiago. 

Hypoxia is the lack of oxygen supply in parts of the body, which can have serious effects on your heart and brain health. 

“I think individuals may perform low-intensity exercises and may progress slowly in their program until their body adapts physiologically. Performing high intensity exercises [while wearing a mask] is not recommended because of the limited oxygen supply,” said Santiago. 

“As for individuals with pre-existing medical conditions such as bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other related cardiopulmonary conditions, it is not recommended as well to exercise with a face mask because the limited oxygen supply might exacerbate their medical condition.” 

Sweating while wearing a face mask is also another hazard altogether as when a face mask gets soaked, its protective properties are compromised. 

“It can further impede oxygen flow. More importantly, it may even promote the growth of viruses and bacteria because of the moisture so this should be carefully weighed,” added Santiago. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement that face masks should not be worn while exercising, but it has become controversial as it failed to dive into specific situations. 

 

What kind of mask can I wear while exercising? For sports science major and doctor Paige Penales, a cloth mask will suffice for exercising as it is “more breathable.” 

“Whenever we breathe in oxygen-rich air, it enters our blood and the body delivers this oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles. Muscles will then use this oxygen during exercise, increasing our capacity for exercise,” explained Penales.

“In exchange for oxygen, we exhale carbon dioxide. More permeable cloth masks should, in theory, allow us to breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide with every cycle.” 

With regards to the material of the cloth, the cotton and jersey materials are the more permeable ones compared to those made out of neoprene and leather, which are not recommended for exercising. 

Global apparel retailer Uniqlo is launching its reusable AIRism face mask, which claims to have a triple-layer structure with a high-performance filter. 

The less permeable masks like the N95 or surgical masks, on the other hand, have more layers of protective substances but it’s less breathable. 

 

What hygienic practices should I be mindful of when exercising in public? Basic hygienic practices such as wearing a mask, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, washing your hands regularly, and refraining from touching your face apply when you exercise in public. 

Athletes and fitness enthusiasts must also observe a one-meter distance from another person to reduce the spread of droplets. 

Both Santiago and Penales agree that surfaces must be disinfected with alcohol, soap and water, or a mixture of bleach and water, especially when using shared equipment or working out in a gym. 

“There is no guarantee, however, even with periodic cleaning and sanitation [that surfaces are free of respiratory droplets]. Some may advocate the use of gloves while exercising with equipment but there may still be hygienic breaches that can happen associated with their use,” said Santiago. 

Santiago also added that the movement of the face and the head from exercising causes masks to be displaced, but frequently adjusting the mask back to its original position also breaches safety protocols. 

Ignoring the displacement of the mask from its original position is even worse as it may put others at risk of catching the virus. 

 

How can I continue exercising safely? The WHO further encourages everyone to exercise and be physically active during the pandemic as it can strengthen your immune system. 

“The pandemic is a mentally and physically stressful and challenging time for us, and different reactions and responses are completely acceptable and valid. We should be reminded, however, that being sedentary has negative effects on our health,” said Penales. 

Both Santiago and Penales agree that exercising in the comforts of your home will be the best solution to keeping yourself fit and healthy. (Adulting 101: How to set up a home gym)

While leisurely to low intensity, non-contact, minimal equipment and individual sports should be the choice of physical activity in public according to Santiago, he would recommend that high-intensity workouts will be better done at home.  

Penales also advises that people can feel more motivated to work out by changing up usual physical activities and exercising at home. 

Before the pandemic, the prevailing notion of exercise and fitness has always been linked to a physical gym or facility, strict schedules, equipment and trainers. In the time of the pandemic, we could explore the idea of exercise as any activity that is physically challenging which can be done at home,” said Penales. 

“We could start our fitness journey by walking around the house, lifting objects, climbing stairs, or jumping over tables or what we have at home. We could also use items we could find at home as substitute for weights we usually find at gyms, may it be cans, bags filled with rocks, or water containers.”

“For those with internet access there’s also tons of exercise materials available online to be done at home.” – Rappler.com 

Beatrice Go

More commonly known as Bee, Beatrice Go is a multimedia sports reporter for Rappler, who covers Philippine sports governance, national teams, football, and the UAAP. Stay tuned for her news and features on Philippine sports and videos like the Rappler Athlete’s Corner and Rappler Sports Timeout.