Is it bad for you to exercise while wearing a mask?
4 minute read · Issue Number 44 · November 27th, 2020
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In March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
Remember how the world went on an absolute lockdown with barely 25,000 cases per day?
Today, there are over half a million cases daily, and I’d say things are about 80% back to ‘normal’ in most countries.
We need time and tons of trial and error to understand what kind of enemy we are facing. As humans, we learn and adapt.
We continuously go through a learning curve of what’s needed to deal with the virus, not overwhelm the healthcare system, and prevent a nation-wide economic collapse.
Every sector of the economy and society created rules and systems for new and unconventional routines for all of us.
Health authorities tested and understood how the virus is transmitted, the effectiveness of social distancing, face masks, and other safety measurements.
Similarly, society had to adapt to a new lifestyle that included work-from-home, limited social encounters, and reduced physical activity.
Both professional and non-professional athletes faced a specific challenge: how to train safely?
In the beginning, it was about figuring out how to train at home.
Today, sports authorities have developed solutions for athletes under the implied healthcare recommendations, including maintaining social distancing, regular disinfection of the equipment, preventing sick people from visiting sports facilities, and face mask usage for both trainers and trainees.
However, the ability to exercise while wearing a mask became a concern. Why?
The mask may limit the amount of oxygen inhaled by the athlete, which could decrease performance;
The mask may increase the resistance and work of breathing;
To date, two significant studies (this one and this one) have examined the physiological effects of face mask usage during exercise.
In the first study, a team of Israeli researchers invited 16 healthy individuals to practice three aerobic workouts (such as jogging, running, or cycling)—one without a mask, one with a surgical mask, and one with an N-95 cover.
They monitored the athletes’ heart rates, breathing, and a few additional physiological factors throughout the research.
Here are two graphs from the study showing in (A) the average heart rate of the participants throughout the exercise and in (B) the respiratory rate of the participants with no mask, surgical masks, and an N-95 mask:
Do you see a significant discrepancy between the three lines? Yeah, me neither.
Interestingly, this study found no statistically significant effects of mask usage in heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation.
They concluded that aerobic exercise with either a surgical mask or N95 respirator is safe and feasible for healthy individuals. Although you may feel some discomfort, masking has only minor effects on physiological parameters during exercise.
Nevertheless, the study suggests that people with obstructive lung diseases such as asthma or COPD and heart diseases should undergo meticulous evaluation before attempting physical activity with a mask.
The second study, conducted by Canadian scientists, began with the hypothesis that mask-wearing during exercise would reduce blood and muscle oxygenation, resulting in adverse effects on the athletes' performance.
The investigation was very similar to the Israeli study. The researchers evaluated 14 people in three different workouts, using surgical, cloth, or no mask. They assessed both blood and muscle oxygen levels in each activity.
Here are the results:
Time to exhaustion, peak power, and arterial oxygen saturation during the exercise test was not different for face mask compared to no face mask conditions.
For heart rate, face mask, and no mask conditions were not different at the end of the exercise.
Like the Israeli conclusion, this study's main finding was that exercise performance was not affected by wearing either a surgical or a cloth face mask.
Why are these findings relevant?
Participating in physical activity and having an active lifestyle (yes, even during a lockdown) is a core component of living a healthy life. Additionally, exercising in a safe environment is critical, especially during the pandemic.
Mass masking is a useful and low-cost strategy that could save lives and the economy, combined with social distancing and hand hygiene.
People can wear face masks during intense exercise without harming performance and blood and muscle oxygenation.
If fitness centers open up during COVID-19, people should use masks at all times.
🎙Reshaping the Sports-Spectator Experience; This week’s podcast features Tim Underhill, a UK sports business magnet! In less than 30 minutes, we talked about the spectator experience post-covid-19, the business model, funding strategy, and story behind SportonSpec, and about the ‘fluid fan 🗣 Come snack with us!
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Did you learn something new today?
Stay safe. Wear a mask.
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