Exercising While Wearing a Mask

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Wearing a mask during exercise reduces the risk that we will infect someone else with the novel coronavirus if we unwittingly carry the disease. But wearing a mask also affects how the exercise affects us, according to exercise scientists who have begun to look into the effects of covering your face while working out.

Their research and insights, some of them based on self-experimentation, raise practical questions about whether some types of masks might be better than others for exercise, how often masks should be swapped out during prolonged exertions and just how much we should expect our heart rates to soar if we attempt to interval train with a mask on.

Almost all of us know by now that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends we cover our faces when we are in crowded public spaces, such as parks or pathways, and in shared, indoor locations, including gyms, to help block the transmission of the novel coronavirus through respiration. These recommendations — which are requirements in some communities and businesses — become particularly pressing when we exercise, since past studies show that our breathing rates can double or even quadruple then, sending out higher numbers of potentially infectious respiratory droplets.

But while there is growing evidence that masks can affect breathing in general, as my colleague Jane Brody wrote about this week, little is yet known scientifically about if and how face coverings change the subjective experience and physical impacts of exercise — although many exercisers will tell you that they do. A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.”

To find out more about those benefits and adversities, I contacted several scientists who have begun analyzing masks and exercise, including the primary author of the new commentary. Because university closures and other pandemic restrictions prevent large-scale, lab-based experiments now, these scientists’ research efforts primarily have involved wearing masks themselves during workouts or asking a few close colleagues to do the same and taking copious notes. But although anecdotal and unpublished, their analyses provide useful tips and cautions for mask wearing during workouts.

Perhaps most important, they show that masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.”

In other words, if you don a mask before running or cycling at your usual pace, your heart rate will be more elevated than before. “You should anticipate that it will be about eight to 10 beats higher per minute” when you wear a mask than when you do not, Dr. Bryant says. This exaggerated rise in heart rate will be most pronounced during intense efforts, he says, such as hill repeats or intervals.

Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico. He is in the early stages of planning a large study of masks and exercise with funding from A.C.E. that will begin when pandemic restrictions allow, he says.

But already he has conducted an informal experiment with two of his students, both experienced athletes. One ran, masked, without breathing difficulties, he says. The other, wearing the same type of cloth mask, felt dizzy after only a few minutes of exertion.

Thankfully, such discomforts likely can be minimized by judicious mask choice and fitting, says Christa Janse van Rensburg, a professor of exercise science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, who wrote the commentary about masks with her graduate student, Jessica Hamuy Blanco.

Avoid paper, surgical masks altogether during exercise, she says, since they rapidly become wet when we breathe into them vigorously and lose some of their ability to block outgoing germs. Cotton cloth masks likewise dampen easily. Cloth masks made from breathable, synthetic materials should lessen moisture buildup. Choose models, though, that “have two layers of fabric or less,” she says, to avoid facial overheating and any bunching of the cloth that might constrict breathing.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 16, 2020

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

Some exercisers may prefer neck gaiters (also called buffs), which can be pulled up over the mouth and nose but remain open at the bottom, increasing air flow. “This can be good from a comfort point of view,” Dr. van Rensburg says, “but perhaps with the trade-off of less-effective infection control.” Look for gaiters in summer-weight fabrics, not those designed for use during skiing.

Plan, too, to carry extras of your preferred mask if you will be exercising for more than about 30 minutes, Dr. Bryant says. Even breathable fabrics become drenched at that point and should be replaced. Try not to touch the front of the used mask, since any viral particles you came into contact with could have accumulated there, he says, and after removal, pack or dispose of it carefully.

Some athletic clothing companies, including Under Armour, Koral, Zensah and others have begun to manufacture masks for use during exercise. You may need to try several models to find the one that most comfortably fits your face and exercise routine, Dr. Bryant says.

But do not be deterred in the interim from wearing a mask if you will be exercising around other people, he continues. Wearing a mask can be particularly important if you are exercising indoors at a gym, where air circulation is less likely to dissipate the virus.

“I know some people find them unpleasant” while running or cycling “and there are controversies” about whether they should be mandatory. “But I look on masks as an opportunity to be a good citizen and show that you care about the well-being of others,” he says, even as you bolster your own well-being with a workout.