Exercising while wearing your face mask on is not dangerous, researchers say

  • Face masks don't restrict breathing during exercise, researchers say
  • This means that they're harmless and should therefore be worn when exercising
  • An exception, however, is in cases where people suffer from severe cardiopulmonary disease

Since a face mask is supposed to cover the mouth and nose in order to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, wearing one while exercising is uncomfortable for most people.

However, contrary to previous findings that wearing a mask during exercising impairs oxygen intake – as well as the World Health Organization's official advice, stating that “people should NOT wear masks while exercising, as masks may reduce the ability to breathe comfortably" – a new study suggests that this isn’t the case.

According to the researchers who looked at the effects of face masks on the cardiorespiratory system (the heart, blood vessels, and lungs) during physical activity, most people should be able to breathe perfectly well with a mask on while exercising, despite it not feeling comfortable.

"There might be a perceived greater effort with activity, but the effects of wearing a mask on the work of breathing, on gases like oxygen and CO2 in blood or other physiological parameters, are small, often too small to be detected," study author and exercise physiologist, Susan Hopkins from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), said in a news release by the university.

The findings were published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

Exercising with face mask harmless

For their study, Hopkins and colleagues reviewed existing scientific literature on the effects of different face masks, including surgical masks, N95 respirators, and cloth face masks, on cardiorespiratory response during physical activity.

Based on their analysis, they said that current evidence suggests while face masks worn by healthy people during exercise result in minimal resistance to airflow, they do not seem to significantly impact lung function and oxygen intake, and are therefore harmless.

They did acknowledge that dyspnea (breathing discomfort) may potentially increase when exercising with a face mask, especially when one is not used to doing so.

"Wearing a face mask can be uncomfortable," says Hopkins.

"There can be tiny increases in breathing resistance. You may re-inhale warmer, slightly enriched CO2 air. And if you're exercising, the mask can cause your face to become hot and sweaty.

“But these are sensory perceptions. They do not impact cardiopulmonary function in healthy people."

Exceptions for certain people

The authors also gave the assurance that their findings apply to both young and old adults, irrespective of gender. However, there is an exception in patients with severe cardiopulmonary disease who have an increased risk of experiencing exertional dyspnea, they cautioned.

"In such cases, these individuals might feel too uncomfortable to exercise, and that should be discussed with their doctor," Hopkins said.

"However, the fact that these individuals are at great risk should they contract Covid-19 must also be considered."

The researchers also disclosed that the literature investigating this issue is evolving and that further studies are still needed to support these findings.

READ | Valve masks don't slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus - and here's the science to back it up

READ | The importance of staying active while staying in

READ | Here are the best and worst materials for face masks

Image: Getty/LeoPatrizi

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