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Face Masks Don't Inhibit Breathing or Performance During Exercise

Woman wearing surgical mask running outdoors

  RainStar / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • As many gyms reopen, face mask mandates have been implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19.
  • A new study found that face masks worn during strenuous exercise do not negatively affect performance or oxygen levels.
  • Maintaining a regular exercise routine during quarantine can provide both physical and mental health benefits.

Face masks have joined the phone-keys-wallet checklist of staples in our daily lives as a method of preventing the spread of COVID-19. But they've stirred up controversy, as well.

Many gyms and recreation centers have reopened around the country implementing new mandatory mask policies within their facilities. In some instances, this has been met with concerns about masks interfering with individuals' ability to breathe during rigorous exercise.

However, a new study from the University of Saskatchewan found that face masks worn during strenuous exercise do not affect performance or blood and oxygen levels.

The Study

The study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health evaluated the use of surgical masks and three-layer cloth masks during cycling tests. Researchers assessed fourteen physically active and healthy participants as they pedaled stationary bikes to exhaustion.

The intensity of the test progressively increased via the bike's resistance level as participants maintained a required pedal rate. The test ended when the individual could no longer keep up with the pedal rate.

Participants completed the test three times—each time on a different day—and researchers recorded muscle and blood oxygen levels throughout. Their findings revealed that wearing a face mask had minimal impact on muscle and blood oxygenation and produced no detrimental effects on performance, measured as time to exhaustion or peak power output.

"Masks have been shown to be a low-cost, low effort way to limit the spread of COVID-19," says exercise physiologist and lead study author Keely Shaw. "Should areas begin to shut things down again, we hypothesized that exercising with a mask would not have negative effects and could be implemented in gyms and other fitness facilities, allowing them to stay open."

Shaw continues, "It’s well known that physical activity is crucial for both physical and mental health, so we were hoping that our research might play a role in keeping that available to the public."

Alexander Rothstein, MS

Consider Galen Rupp ... he was able to perform at an Olympic level while wearing a mask. It is conceivable that the mask may not be a hindrance for individuals during high-intensity exercise

— Alexander Rothstein, MS

Effects on Body and Brain

Researchers were not shocked by the physiological results of the study. Shaw points to the common practice of wearing masks in areas of the world with low air quality, as well as health care professionals' and essential workers' ability to wear masks for hours on end.

Alexander Rothstein, an instructor and coordinator at the New York Institute of Technology's exercise science program, provides another shining example.

"Consider Galen Rupp, one of USA’s top long-distance runners and an Olympic Silver and Bronze medalist," Rothstein says. "Galen suffered from asthma and allergies, so he would occasionally wear a mask when running in an area with a high pollen count or low air quality due to pollution. Considering he was able to perform at an Olympic level while wearing a mask, it is conceivable that the mask may not be a hindrance for individuals during high-intensity exercise."

But not everyone has an Olympic athlete mindset, and psychology can play a major role in performance. Some may simply perceive working out as more difficult with a mask on.

"I thought perhaps the discomfort of wearing the mask might lead to decreased performance or at least perceived effort, but we found no differences in those measures," Shaw says.

Keely Shaw, Researcher

Some might feel stir-crazy being limited in their activities. Physical activity can be a really powerful tool to help people feel more connected or even just burn off some nervous energy.

— Keely Shaw, Researcher

It's important to note that the study's limitations may have played a part in this. The physical activity represented in this study might not accurately reflect an everyday gym workout, which more likely consists of at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, and a longer session with a mask on could have a potentially greater effect on performance.

Benefits of Exercise During Quarantine

We know regular exercise is an important component of a healthy lifestyle, but that fact holds greater weight as we're cooped up in quarantine. Shaw points to exercise and its physical benefits—reduced blood pressure and obesity, lowered cholesterol, diabetes prevention, improved immune system—as effective mitigation of risk factors that could potentially leave someone more susceptible to COVID-19 complications.

Equally important, she adds, are the mental benefits of physical activity.

"[Quarantine] can be very lonely, and some might feel stir-crazy being limited in their activities," Shaw says. "Physical activity can be a really powerful tool to help people feel more connected or even just burn off some nervous energy. We also know that quarantine can have really detrimental effects on mental health, so by maintaining your physical activity, hopefully, we can combat some of those negative effects."

Shaw recommends exercising outdoors if possible, distancing yourself from others, and if you go to a gym, not using too much equipment at once.

And, of course, wear a mask. As colder weather and recent spikes in new coronavirus cases herd people indoors, there's greater potential for spread in public spaces.

What This Means For You

Face masks prevent the spread of COVID-19, and early research shows they won't inhibit your breathing or performance during exercise. Being patient with yourself as you adjust to a fitness routine with a face covering will increase comfort and safety.

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Article Sources
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  1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommendation regarding the use of cloth face coverings, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. Updated June 28, 2020.

  2. Shaw K, Butcher S, Ko J, Zello GA, Chilibeck PD. Wearing of cloth or disposable surgical face masks has no effect on vigorous exercise performance in healthy individualsInt J Environ Res Public Health. 2020;17(21):8110. Published 2020 Nov 3. doi:10.3390/ijerph17218110