Fitness

Experts Explain What Happens To Your Body When You Work Out In A Mask

Prepare to be sweaty.

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After months of doing Zoom pilates in your living room (and trying to keep your cat out of the camera), there's nothing like that first outdoor run, even if it is a jillion degrees out. If you're getting back into the swing of exercise again, you may be wondering how your fancy new mask is affecting your body as you work out.

Masks might seem like an inconvenience when it comes to getting sweaty, but if you're out in public, or particularly in confined places like gyms, experts tell Bustle yes, you absolutely need to be wearing them if you don't want to potentially expose your fellow sweaties to coronavirus. (Of course you should stay home if you're feeling sick, but since so much coronavirus spread is from asymptomatic people, you can never be too careful.) You might notice some interesting changes in your body's reactions to that masked lifting session.

"Right now there isn’t a lot of research on the exact physiological responses from wearing a mask during exercise," Melissa Morris, an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist at the University of Tampa and advisor to QuickQuote, an insurance service, tells Bustle. "Based on anecdotal evidence and limited research, wearing a mask can increase heart rate, restrict breathing, cause lightheadedness, and increase body temperature." None of these things mean you can't work out in a mask, and you can always go back to logging reps at home if it's too uncomfortable.

How Wearing A Mask To Exercise Feels Different

The first thing you might notice during a mask-on workout is the difference in your breathing. "We know that wearing a mask limits airflow and can affect oxygen consumption," Morris says. Your body needs more oxygen intake during exercise, as it works hard to lift those dumbbells or sprint that course. Masks impede airflow a little, so you'll likely be breathing pretty intensely. (One big caveat: The idea of carbon dioxide retention — that masks could trap CO2 close to your mouth and make you dizzy — is a common anti-mask talking point, but doctors have debunked this pretty thoroughly, pointing out that medical professionals typically wear masks for hours with no ill effects.)

You may notice that your heart rate and body temperature rise when you're exercising in a mask. "There's increased body temperature from heat getting trapped inside the mask, which leads to quick overheating and exhaustion," Jaclyn Fulop, a board-licensed physical therapist and clinical director at Exchange Physical Therapy Group, tells Bustle. That spike in body heat, and the relative difficulty of pulling in oxygen, will also mean your heart works harder than it usually does. Prepare to get really sweaty, drink a lot of water, and feel your heart pound through your chest.

While your body is working really hard, you still may not hit the milestones you'd expect. A study published in Sports in 2016 of eight people found that wearing a mask during resistance exercises, like weightlifting, made people feel they were working harder — but they actually showed less muscular performance than people doing the same moves mask-free. Your aerobic routine might be a little less affected, though. A 2020 study published in Journal of Human Sport and Exercise found that surgical masks didn't seem to affect the performance of people pedaling on exercise bikes. This all depends on your individual rate of cardiovascular fitness and how heavily you work out, so watch your own performance carefully.

"In all honesty, the difference is not that important," exercise physiologist Pete McCall, CSCS, a spokesperson for anti-inflammatory gel Voltaren, tells Bustle. "The more noticeable impact is the psychology of trying to exercise while wearing a mask." If you feel uncomfortable in a mask, he says, you may reflexively contract your muscles, changing the way your body reacts to exercise. If you feel tense, do some deep breathing and try to relax before going onto the next rep.

How To Comfortably Work Out During The Pandemic

Masks really do help protect against coronavirus, even if you have to adjust your expectations and routine. Advice published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in June 2020 noted that if you're not sick and suffering from respiratory symptoms, exercise with a mask is safe and will help control the spread of the disease through respiratory droplets. Fulop recommends that if you're going to do heavy exercise, you do it outside in a remote area far away from others, which will mean mask-wearing isn't strictly necessary. If you do work out in a gym or with a group, though, keeping a mask on will protect you and those around you. Some chains, like Planet Fitness, require patrons who attend reopened gyms to wear masks, though Planet Fitness later adjusted its policy to not require mask-wearing during the workout itself.

Specific exercise masks are a good idea if you want to get sweaty. "A cloth or cotton mask is a better option than a surgical mask during exercise because it can become damp during exercise," Morris says. That does make the material heavier and more difficult to breathe through, but it also mean it's washable. Fulop explains that damp masks are also less helpful when it comes to protecting against the coronavirus. "They can become permeable to particles, which means they're not protective from harmful bacteria in the air," she says. The National Health Organization recommends changing a damp mask as soon as possible for this reason. Opt for a moisture-wicking mask if you can, or look into specific masks made for exercisers. "Thinner masks will allow for easier air passage while thicker masks may require more forceful exhalation," McCall says. The BMJ also suggests taking along a second mask to replace a damp one during your session, while trying not to touch your face.

Morris says that you should listen to your body if you exercise with a face mask on. "If you feel overheated or lightheaded, take a break or take some time to recover," she says. "It might also be a good idea to ease into exercising with a mask by breaking your routine into shorter sessions or by slowly increasing the duration of your exercise session." And, as always, sanitize your hands and wash your masks immediately after your session. They'll likely be gym sock-level gross, anyway.

Experts:

Jaclyn Fulop

Pete McCall

Melissa Morris

Studies cited:

Li, Y., Tokura, H., Guo, Y. P., Wong, A. S., Wong, T., Chung, J., & Newton, E. (2005). Effects of wearing N95 and surgical facemasks on heart rate, thermal stress and subjective sensations. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 78(6), 501–509. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00420-004-0584-4

Motoyama, Y. L., Joel, G. B., Pereira, P., Esteves, G. J., & Azevedo, P. (2016). Airflow-Restricting Mask Reduces Acute Performance in Resistance Exercise. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 4(4), 46. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports4040046

Otsuka, A., Komagata, J., & Sakamoto, Y. (2020). Wearing a surgical mask does not affect the anaerobic threshold during pedaling exercise. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise. doi:https://doi.org/10.14198/jhse.2022.171.03