Wearing a face mask while exercising outdoors helps prevent the spread of COVID-19, but it can also lead to breathing difficulties. We spoke with experts to break down the safety concerns your family needs to know.

By Nicole Harris
May 14, 2020
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Recently, two 14-year-old boys in China died while running laps for gym class. Both students were wearing face masks during the physical examination. And while there weren't any autopsies to prove the masks caused breathing difficulties, several nearby school districts subsequently cancelled their own running tests, according to 7News, an Austrial news outlet.

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This tragedy hits close to home as the coronavirus (COVID-19) continues spreading across America, causing many people to don face masks outdoors. It also raises an important question: Should my family be wearing face masks while exercising? 

If you’re exercising outdoors, there’s no need to wear a mask if you practice proper social distancing. This means staying at least six feet away from others, says Sarah Fankhauser, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and infectious disease expert at Oxford College of Emory University. COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets that can travel up to six feet, so breaking these guidelines may put yourself and others at risk.

But what if you or your kids are running, walking, or bike riding in a place where social distancing can’t be guaranteed? You should definitely wear a mask, says Linda Lee, MBA, Chief Science Officer for UV Angel. Asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carriers of COVID-19—which Dr. Lee says makes up between 20 percent and 36 percent of cases—could spread the disease to others by exercising outdoors without a face covering. 

“A person exercising is breathing heavily, and if they’re infected and asymptomatic, they could be exhaling up to 2 million viral particles,” Dr. Lee says. “Studies have shown this virus could infect someone with as few as a thousand virus particles, further highlighting the importance of social distancing.”

It’s vital to note that wearing masks while exercising comes with a risk, since covering your face restricts air flow, says Dr. Fankhauser. Keep reading to learn more about these safety concerns and precautions your family can take to eliminate breathing difficulties. 

Risks of Wearing a Mask During Exercise

While exercise is key to maintaining good health, adding a mask presents a slew of safety concerns. For starters, the face covering could restrict your air flow, says Lana V. Ivanitskaya, Ph.D., industrial-organizational psychologist and professor in the School of Health Sciences at Central Michigan University. “Mask tolerance is a bigger issue than people realize, especially for people with reduced lung function,” she says. “Physical exertion will make an otherwise tolerable mask intolerable” by causing breathing difficulty. 

What's more, masks become wet when you wear them. This further adds to the discomfort by triggering sweat and nasal secretions—which will especially bother younger kids. Wet masks may also be less effective than dry masks in reducing airborne transmission of COVID-19.

And here's yet another issue: Wearing a mask can make people become fatigued faster than normal. “A mask will restrict airflow in and out of the mouth and nose, creating a situation where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange are compromised,” says Michael Figueroa, EdD, a professor and graduate director of kinesiology at William Paterson University of New Jersey. He explains that during physical activity, the body’s carbon dioxide levels rise, resulting in faster breathing and increased heart rate. The mask might trap some of this carbon dioxide inside. While levels are too low to cause poisoning, they could lead to fatigue. 

“A person may think that they are getting a better workout because it is ‘harder,’ but it is not necessarily better,” he adds. “The problem is that you would reach the anaerobic threshold (AT) at an exercise intensity much lower than you would without the mask. As a result, a person can ‘de-train,’ or become fatigued sooner than they need for progressive adaptations to occur.”

Finally, little kids aren't as aware of their bodily functions, so they might not realize difficulty breathing means reduced respiratory function. They might keep exercising despite these physical warnings, possibly leading to negative consequences.

How to Safely Exercise with a Mask

Even during the pandemic, it’s important not to skip exercise. “There are many types of exercise. Try to find the one that you can do in a socially distanced way. It’s not a yes or no issue but rather a continuum—the less social exposure, the better,” says Dr. Ivanitskaya.  But those living in a crowded city might need to exercise with a mask outdoors. To prevent negative complications, follow this advice from experts.

Check with your doctor. “If you or your kid has an underlying health condition (heart disease, reactive airways, asthma, high blood pressure, and so forth), you should always check with your healthcare practitioner to clear wearing a mask, especially if you are going to exercise in a mask. These people can give you guidance to prevent a medical emergency,” says Dr. Lee.   

Set your expectations. “Given that a mask can restrict air flow, set your expectations a bit lower and monitor your breathing and heart rate,” says Dr. Fankhauser. Make sure kids understand these facts before exercising outdoors.

Don’t touch your face. Before exercising, make sure your mask isn’t obstructing your view, especially if you’re wearing glasses. “Carry a clean cloth or tissue to wipe sweat away and carry hand sanitizer if you are touching your face,” says Dr. Lee. “It’s also important to clean and dry your mask after each use.”

Watch out for physical exertion. “If you feel like you need more air, then pause, drink some water, and take the mask off if it’s safe to do so,” says Dr. Fankhauser. Make sure to avoid touching the outside of the mask, and don’t put dirty hands on your face.

Experiment with face coverings. It might take some time to find a comfortable face covering for exercising. “You want as many layers as you can tolerate without significant discomfort. They must fit tightly to provide filtration,” says Dr. Ivanitskaya.

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