Since research has confirmed the importance of wearing face coverings in preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus, face masks have been mandated throughout much of the U.S.
While some states enforce mask-wearing only indoors, others require it both indoors and outdoors whenever social distancing is not attainable. These rules are especially essential for avid exercisers and athletes to follow, as heavy, fast-paced breathing can exacerbate the spread of the virus, says personal trainer and doctor of nutrition Roger E. Adams, Ph.D., C.I.S.S.N.
“The higher the intensity of the exercise we’re performing, the harder and more forceful our breathing can become,” he says. “When we breathe out hard from exercise, a greater amount of droplets come from our nose and mouth and are dispelled a further distance.”
The result: One study from the Netherlands suggests that while six feet may be safe for two people standing around, it is not enough distance for two exercising people. For this reason, it’s important that exercisers wear masks when they cannot work out in isolation.
Here’s what to know about exercising in a mask as comfortably and efficiently as possible.
DO: Accept that you may be uncomfortable for a period of time
Mask wearing takes some getting used to, especially if you’re wearing one while exercising. “It’s not fun, but it’s better than contracting COVID-19 or potentially spreading it to those around you,” notes certified strength and condition specialist Alex Tauberg, D.C., C.S.C.S. “A little bit of discomfort to protect fellow humans is worth it.”
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Neither surgical nor cloth face masks restrict quality air from entering your lungs, according to the American Lung Association. Translation: They’re perfectly safe. “Mask wearing may make breathing feel slightly more difficult, but once an individual gets used to it, their breathing patterns will adapt and it will no longer be so cumbersome,” adds Adams.
At first, scale back the intensity and duration of your workouts. Once you adjust to exercising in your mask, level them up.
DON’T: Exercise with a mask if you have underlying conditions
Underlying conditions, such as cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, or asthma, can exacerbate breathing difficulties while wearing a mask, according to Tauberg. If you have (or are concerned that you have) one of these preexisting conditions, talk to your doctor before exercising with a face mask on. If necessary, work out at home or outside, away from others so that you can go mask-less.
DO: Opt for a cotton mask
Not all masks are created equal, including the reusable kind. Research published in the journal ACS Nano analyzed 14 different mask materials and found that cotton may be the most effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. “Thin neck gaiter masks are a no!” says Alexea Gaffney-Adams, M.D., a Long Island-based internist with a subspecialty in infectious disease. “They may even cause more dispersal of infectious particles.” So while cotton may not exactly work sweat-wicking magic, it is the safest bet.
DO: Wear your mask properly
Just because a mask is hanging across your face in some fashion doesn’t mean it’s protecting you and those around you from infection. “Wearing a mask that sits under your nose or in another unintended way helps no one,” says Tauberg.
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Friendly reminder: The CDC recommends securing a clean, snug-fitting mask over your nose and mouth and under your chin.
DON’T: Set your mask down on a surface
If you have to take your mask off to wipe your face or have a sip of water, keep it in your hand or pocket instead of setting it on a surface. Some studies, including one published in the New England Journal of Medicine, have discovered that the coronavirus can remain viable on surfaces for a period of days. However, infectious disease physician at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security Amesh Adalja, M.D. notes that surface transmission is much less likely. “It is a secondary means of getting the virus,” he says. If someone is high risk or simply overly concerned, he recommends that they bring a Ziploc bag with them so they don’t have to put their mask on any surfaces.
DO: Wash your mask after EVERY workout
The CDC recommends washing cloth face masks after use—and this most certainly goes for exercising. “Just like with any other workout clothing, you should be conscientious about cleaning your mask after exercise,” Adams says. “Don’t keep a dirty one in your gym bag and wear it again. Instead, keep spare disposable masks in your bag just in case you forget to wash yours or need a back-up.”
DON’T: Pull your mask down to talk
As necessary as it may feel in order to get through to your gym buddy over any loud music, don’t give in to the temptation to yank that mask down, even momentarily. “Pulling your mask down to speak is a major no-no and just invalidates wearing one,” says Adams. Keep it on—and ask others to do the same—while talking, even in outdoor environments.
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