Is It a Good Idea to Exercise Outdoors With a Face Mask?

The science around masks has always been divisive but when it comes to exercising, it might be more about etiquette over efficiency.
June 17, 2020, 8:35am
exercise running outdoors during coronavirus
Photo courtesy of Gustavo Fring / Pexels

Last month, in Wuhan, it was reported that a man burst a lung while running over three kilometres while wearing a face mask. In another such incident, two Chinese boys dropped dead from cardiac arrest while wearing masks during gym class. As countries ease their lockdowns and we return to at least some of our pre-pandemic routines, there is one question that has produced conflicting answers so far: Is it safe to exercise wearing masks?

"Most people can perform every and all exercise with a face mask on," Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist, told CNET. "You will want to monitor how you're feeling while exercising and watch out for specific symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, numbness or tingling and shortness of breath."

However, it is advised for people with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions to take caution while doing so.

Introducing: The Lockdown Jogger

Wearing a surgical mask can restrict the flow of air to our bodies. As exercising invariably leads to faster and harder breathing, wearing a mask during exercise places a further strain on airflow. Less oxygen in our lungs means less oxygen in our bloodstream and our working muscles—something that can make exercising difficult for us. As the carbon dioxide we exhale after breathing gets trapped in our masks, it makes us re-breathe the same carbon dioxide, reducing cognitive function and increasing breathing rate.

Moreover, as the sweat produced while exercising gets trapped in the mask, it not only limits the permeability of the masks but also makes wearing the masks extremely uncomfortable. As we huff into them, the wet masks can also lead to a loss in anti-microbial efficiency.

But despite the concerns that wearing masks come with, you should probably be wearing it anyway not just because many government policies have made it mandatory but just out of politeness. “Running is good for health,” said Benjamin Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Hong Kong, to The New York Times. “And transmission risk should be minimal, both for others, if a runner were infected, or for the runner, if they passed by infected people.” Even so, masks could reassure people you’re sharing roads and sidewalks with, who might be uncomfortable at the sign of someone panting or expelling air heavily.

Maybe the answer lies in a middle ground for the time being—wearing that mask but also restricting more intense workout sessions. “Set your expectations a bit lower and monitor your breathing and heart rate,” said Dr Sarah Fankhauser, assistant professor of biology and infectious disease expert at Emory University to parenting and health magazine Parents. So maybe just jog instead of run, or walk instead of jog. You can cover up for the lost miles once this is all over.

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