When stay-at-home orders begin to ease and the coronavirus pandemic simmers down (it has to end at some point, right?!), gyms and fitness studios will begin to open again. This will bring about a slew of questions for gym junkies, Orangetheory die-hards and all other fitness fiends. Is it safe to go to the gym? Do I still need to stay six feet away from everyone? How vigorously do I need to wipe down equipment?
Of course, you could always stick to your home workout routine or continue exercising with household objects to ensure safety. But those who are eager to get back to the community aspect of fitness are sure to ask one big question: Must I exercise with a face mask on?
In some areas, that might be required. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask or cloth face covering in public, especially in places where maintaining social distancing is difficult, like a grocery store or pharmacy. Several countries and some parts of the US have made that practice mandatory. We don’t know when those directives will end, and they could still be in place once gyms open again.
Because the thought of exercising with a face mask on sounds, uh, miserable, we talked to a few experts who discuss everything there is to know about exercising while wearing a face mask.
Is it safe to exercise with a face mask on?
Generally, yes, it’s safe for most people to exercise while wearing a face mask, Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist at Movement Vault, says.
“Most people can perform every and all exercises with a face mask on,” Wickham says. “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.”
Should anyone not exercise with a face mask on?
Wickham says people who have underlying cardiovascular or respiratory conditions should take caution when exercising with a face mask on. The severity of their condition will dictate whether or not it’s appropriate for them to exercise with a face mask on.
“Someone that has an underlying respiratory condition that is on the more severe side will want to exercise indoors without a face mask,” he says, to ensure safety for themselves and others.
Examples of such conditions include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and any other conditions that affect the heart or lungs. If you have a cardiovascular or respiratory condition, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor about exercising with a face mask before attempting to do it. If you can’t go see your doctor right now, try calling or scheduling a telemedicine visit.
Also, people who are new to exercising or haven’t exercised in a long time should pay extra attention if exercising while wearing a face mask. Monitor the intensity of your workout and keep it on the low-to-moderate side to avoid symptoms like dizziness and fainting, Wickham says.
What happens when you exercise with a face mask on?
Compared with normal breathing, wearing any kind of protective mask decreases the flow of air into your lungs, according to Scott McAfee, physical therapist and orthopedic specialist at MovementX. Less oxygen in your lungs means less oxygen in your bloodstream and your working muscles, which is what makes training more difficult.
“Different masks have varying levels of airflow restriction, depending on the thickness of the material,” McAfee says. “With less air, your body has less available oxygen to utilize during exercise to convert glucose [sugar] into energy.”
McAfee says that anyone, even those who have a relatively high level of fitness, should expect to fatigue faster when exercising with a face mask, comparing this scenario to altitude training or wearing an oxygen deprivation mask to elicit greater respiratory fitness (this is something that elite athletes do).
“Over a few weeks, your body will certainly adapt by becoming more efficient at metabolizing oxygen, but this takes time,” McAfee says. “If you start to feel dizzy, imbalanced, or overly fatigued, stop. Be smart [and] don’t over do it.”
What to expect while exercising with a face mask on
“Due to the increase in breathing resistance, it’s normal to get out of breath quicker than you typically would in your workout when not wearing the face mask,” Wickham says. “You may not be able to perform at the same level that you would when not wearing the face mask,” he says, adding that you can expect a decrease in your workout performance while wearing a face mask.
Someone who has a higher fitness level may not feel the effects of a face mask as harshly as someone who is just starting to exercise, Wickham says, but even very fit people will most likely not be able to perform at their typical level.
Pay attention to how your body responds to your workout while wearing a face mask, especially during higher-intensity exercises, such as heavy weightlifting, sprints, plyometrics, CrossFit-style workouts, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and cardio workouts.
If you do feel lightheaded, dizzy or extremely short of breath, you should sit down and take a break. If the symptoms don’t go away relatively soon, you should take your mask off to allow yourself to breathe normally, Wickham says. If you do need to take your mask off, always follow the public health rules and try to maintain at least six feet of distance between you and other people.
How to not feel restricted while exercising with a face mask on
Sorry — you’re not really going to get around this one. “Unfortunately, it is hard to get around feeling constricted while wearing the mask,” Wickham says. “The good news is, your lungs and cardiovascular system are getting an extra workout while you are wearing your face mask because it is providing extra breathing resistance.”
A silver lining: The more you exercise with a face mask on, the more accustomed your body will become to the reduced flow of oxygen, and theoretically, you should feel like a beast when you can finally work out without a face mask on.
How to know if you’re getting enough oxygen
As long as you don’t have an underlying respiratory or cardiovascular condition, and are listening to your body, you will most likely be getting enough oxygen while exercising with a face mask on, Wickham says.
The most accurate way to determine if you’re getting enough oxygen is to use a pulse oximeter, Wickham says, which tells you exactly the oxygen saturation of your blood.
“The next best thing is to simply listen to your body,” he says. “If you experience lightheadedness, dizziness, extreme shortness of breath or numbness and tingling, you need to stop exercising and sit down and take a break.”
Wickham warns against pushing through these sensations: “If you feel any of these symptoms, this is your body telling you that something is not right, and that something is that you are not getting enough oxygen into your lungs and to the rest of your body,” he says.
So to all you folks who’ll be sprinting to the squat rack when gyms reopen (see you there!), yes, you can safely exercise with a face mask on, provided you heed your body’s warning signs. And because hitting the gym with a face mask on is likely to be a post-coronavirus norm, you can at least take solace that your lungs will just be that much stronger when you can exercise freely again.