Let’s talk about exercise and masks

Ok friends, it’s time for us to have a chat about exercise and facemasks.

Depending on where you are in the world and how far along you are in the local re-opening timeline, you may or may not be approaching the time where you’re considering getting back into fitness with other people.

Here in Massachusetts, socially-distanced group workouts are permissible in an outdoor setting where everyone must wear a mask. In the next week or so, indoor personal training (either one-on-one or two-on-one, if they’re from the same household). And, likely by the last week in June, fitness studios (like ours!) will be allowed to open.

We fully expect that that basic rules will include social-distancing and masks (in addition to other details, which we will spend some time outlining soon).

If you haven’t already tried jogging with a mask on (because it seems like almost everyone took up jogging during the shutdown), you might have some questions or concerns because, for the foreseeable future, exercise outside of your home is going to require a mask… and that’s new and maybe a bit weird.

So let’s talk about masks and exercise.

The Basics

For the sake of brevity, I am going to take it as a given that wearing a mask is a good idea because it protects other people from your respiratory droplets. The degree of protection your mask offers to those around you varies, of course, based on the fabric used in your mask, how much air actually passes through the fabric and how well your mask fits your face.

A Brief PSA on How to Wear Your Mask Correctly

When you wear your mask, it must:

  • Cover your nose and mouth; AND
  • Fit under your chin; AND
  • Fit snugly against the sides of your face.

Also very important:

  • Make sure you can breathe easily…

…because if you have difficulty breathing while wearing your mask, that’s just going to make wearing it harder and less enjoyable for you. And, the chances increase that you might end up feeling like you have to adjust it by sticking your nose out over the top or pulling it up or down off your face entirely. And then you’re not helping anyone.

As Erin Bromage put it: “Your mask protects me, My mask protects you”.

One of our core values at Redefine Strength and Fitness is community. Fundamentally, we believe we are connected and that our actions can have an impact on others. And impact is more important than intent. Knowing this (along with the growing evidence that suggests we can limit the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks, maintaining social distance, washing our hands frequently and making sure we don’t spend time near people who are symptomatic) makes the relatively minor inconvenience of wearing a mask a no-brainer.

But what about masks and exercise? I heard that…

On the surface of it, there are some very legitimate concerns about wearing a mask while exercising—particularly while exercising vigorously:

  • Will the mask allow me to get enough oxygen into my lungs?
  • Will the mask prevent me from exhaling the carbon dioxide that my lungs produce?

Let’s go to the science!

Dean Somerset recently posted a very helpful rundown of some research related to wearing masks and exercising. If you’re up for some jargon-heavy reading, I recommend checking it out. There were a couple of notable examples from the research that I would like to highlight here:

Airflow restriction masks

There was a time when people would wear a type of mask that actually made it harder to breathe air in. One of the more popular reasons for wearing such a mask was to prepare for training at altitude. The idea was that the mask could help you to do two things:

One, making it harder to inhale means the muscles that are responsible for bringing air into your lungs work harder and thus, become stronger. This would mean that you become better at getting more air in with each breath.

Two, by restricting the flow of air into your lungs, it creates a metabolic stress because your lungs end up with getting a bit less oxygen with each breath. This, in turn, stimulates a metabolic adaptation making your system work more efficiently with the oxygen it does get.

Firefighters

Hey, you know who regularly engages in some rather vigorous physical activity while wearing a mask? Firefighters. Research has demonstrated that their lung capacity is slightly lower when they exert themselves with a respirator mask on, but even when they’re really pushing themselves, they don’t end up with dangerously low blood-oxygen levels or dangerously high blood-CO2 levels.

Military

There are certain types of missions and/or circumstances under which certain members of the military wear some form of mask or face-covering. And you can be darn sure the military has done some research to see how the masks affect the physical performance of their soldiers.

 Pregnant Healthcare Workers

If you were to click on the link, you’d see it takes you to a 2015 study where they were thinking ‘hey, outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases could mean that pregnant healthcare workers will have to spend long periods of time wearing N95 masks, we should have a look at the potential metabolic impact’. By and large, what they found was that, yes, wearing the masks did have a slight impact on their lung capacity…but, there were other markers that weren’t significantly different from the controls in the study. Notably, however, some of the subjects began to adapt to the workload over time.

And that might bring us to our take-home point:

There’s a good chance that exercising in a mask—particularly when it comes to vigorous exercise—is going to feel weird and hard…at first.

But, like many things that are weird at first, eventually you’ll adapt. You are a resilient and adaptable sort, after all.

After a while, there’s a chance you won’t even notice the mask anymore.

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