Tuesday, September 08 2020
Is it Safe to Exercise with a Face Covering?
Exercise centers, gyms and fitness studios are now starting to re-open as the stay-at-home directives begin to ease throughout the U.S. and other countries. Exercise enthusiasts are wondering if it is safe to return to their favorite workout facility and what precautions need to be in place for everyone to remain safe. With no COVID-19 national safety directives in place for all gyms and exercise facilities, policies are sure to vary throughout the country and among fitness businesses. One big question being asked by fitness pros and exercise enthusiasts is, “Should I wear a face mask when I workout in a fitness facility?”
Most people can perform their regular workouts while wearing a face covering, which will provide protection from virus spread for everyone (Capritto, 2020). It is essential to remind exercise enthusiasts to monitor how they feel during the workout and to take particular notice if they feel dizzy, lightheaded, or short of breath (Capritto, 2020). If so, slow down/reduce exercise intensity and or stop exercising until these symptoms go away. If a client stops exercising due to shortness of breath and he or she remains short of breath, have the person remove the covering to allow for better air flow into the lungs. Remember, these symptoms (i.e., dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath) during exercise may also reflect a number of health conditions including the following: overexertion (particularly if a person hasn’t worked out for some time or at his or her usual intensity levels, due to stay-at-home rules), dehydration, low blood pressure, low blood glucose, heart arrhythmia (sometimes exercise triggers an irregular heart rhythm) or lack of oxygen.
Individuals with a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition are encouraged to take caution when exercising with a face mask (Capritto, 2020). Specifically, those clients who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, asthma, chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis and any other lung conditions should consult (i.e., via telemedicine) with a medical professional for personal instructions on exercising with a face mask (Capritto, 2020).
Also, feeling dizzy after a workout (with or without wearing a face mask) may indicate that a person has low blood pressure. This may also occur in pregnant women. Dizziness after exercise may sometimes indicate a heart problem or symptoms of type 2 diabetes (low blood sugar levels). Medical attention is necessary if this condition persists.
How Hard Should a Client Exercise While Wearing a Face Covering?
Monitoring exercise intensity is always essential for a safe and effective workout, with or without wearing a face covering. However, wearing any type of covering over the nose and mouth while exercising is likely to reduce the flow of oxygen into a person’s lungs (Capritto, 2020). Some workouts, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which have been shown to be very demanding on the cardiorespiratory system, may feel a little more difficult. This could be a direct result of reduced amounts of oxygen reaching the vigorously exercising muscles. Less oxygen to exercising skeletal muscle reduces the ATP production to provide the needed energy to maintain the exercise intensity and duration (Hargreaves, 2016). Therefore, a slightly lowered oxygen level reaching the muscle is a central contributing factor to fatigue (Hargreaves, 2016). Some exercisers who wear face masks may notice they are not able to complete an otherwise “normal” workout, or they feel more fatigued than usual during and after the workout.
To minimize early symptoms of fatigue during exercise with a face mask, exercise professionals should encourage clients not to push themselves as hard as usual. They should be encouraged to use rating of perceived exertion (RPE) in combination with heart rate to monitor exercise intensity. Advise clients to allow their cardiorespiratory system time to gradually adapt to the slight restriction of air flow (from the face mask). Fitness adaptations to changes in overload during workout programs usually take weeks to occur. Therefore, educate face mask wearing clients that it may take several workouts before they are fully training at their regular exercise intensities.
What Type of Face Covering Should a Client Wear for Exercise?
The purpose of the face mask is to help block respiratory droplets from being sprayed into the air when a person coughs, sneezes, breathes or talks (Sweeney 2020). Surgical masks (also called medical masks) and N95 masks (which are a form of a respirator) are critical masks used by health care workers, who wear them when treating high-risk patients and where social distancing is not possible. However, the efficacy of wearing a medical mask during exercise has not been investigated. For repeated use, cloth masks are a very good option during exercise. It is best if the cloth mask has multiple layers of fabric (Sweeney, 2020). A person can buy a cloth mask or make one. Masks made of a scarf, bandana or T-shirt are not a great option (Sweeney, 2020), as they usually do not fit the face as well as a cloth mask. A neck gaiter (also called a buff) is a flexible tube fabric worn to keep the neck and face warm in cold weather. Neck gaiters are not a good option for exercise enthusiasts because they are designed to keep the face and neck warm, and during exercise it is important to dissipate heat from the body (to cool it off). Also, avoid using masks that have plastic valves in the front, as these only filter air that a person breathes in and does not block the air breathed out (Sweeney, 2020). Finally, face shields offer yet another face covering option for exercisers. Face shields provide wearers protection (entire face—eyes, nose and mouth) without impacting breathing. The unfortunate downside is that face shields tend to be less available than other face-covering options.
Tips on Proper Wear of a Face Covering during Exercise
Exercise professionals can share the following tips with their clients (adapted from Boone, 2020; CDC, 2020; Sweeney, 2020)
Face masks, which are a staple in the medical industry, are now becoming safety tools for fitness enthusiasts working out among fellow devotees in exercise clubs. When exercising, the mask should be looked at as a barrier, not a complete shield, in terms of blocking virus particles. Therefore, whenever possible, social distancing measures should always be adhered to in the gym, and commonly touched surfaces should be routinely sanitized. The outside of the mask may become contaminated, so you should not touch it and instead use correct safety measures when removing it, to avoid negatively impacting the positive health effects of the mask. Lastly, it is important to regularly check the CDC and World Health Organization websites for updated recommendations on preventive measures.
Authors: by Len Kravitz, PhD, Zachary Mang, MS, Juliet St. Germain, BS, and Cedric X. Bryant, PhD.