As spring arrives and gyms are opening back up, many of us are getting outside for a much-needed run or finally hitting a beloved in-studio class we’ve gone without for what feels like a century. While this change of pace is thrilling, we’re not back to “normal” just yet; wearing a mask to get your sweat on is a HUGE adjustment! And not a natural adjustment at that. Thankfully, with a little strategy, there are ways to easily workout in a mask.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggest wearing a mask when visiting gyms, as well as outdoor exercise, combined with physical distancing of at least six feet. (The CDC does note that if you choose not to wear a mask during vigorous activity outdoors, physical distancing is key.)
Science has actually proven that working out in a mask has no negative side effects on performance. A September 2020 study published on the effects of wearing a mask during exercise found that heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, oxygen level, and time of exhaustion were not significantly affected by wearing a mask during moderate and strenuous aerobic physical activity. However, certain people should check in with their healthcare provider before attempting to exercise with a mask, including those with lung disease (such as asthma or COPD) or heart disease, per the CDC.
To make working out in a mask more comfortable, here are six things to keep in mind and help you breathe.
The time of day you workout may impact the air quality — something that you probably notice more with a mask on. To avoid hotter or more humid weather, go outside first thing in the morning or later in the evening, when the air is likely cooler. Air pollution can also make wearing a mask and working out more difficult, so if you live in an area where that’s an issue, it might be smart to check air quality levels before heading out. To check out the air quality in your area at any time, go to airnow.gov and enter your zip code.
If you’re anxious or slightly uncomfortable with wearing a mask while you workout, it may take you a few minutes to adjust to wearing your mask even before you start sweating profusely. A great way to make sure your body is well-adjusted to the mask is to do some slow, calm breathing, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America.
To prep yourself, put your hand on your belly and slowly breathe in for three to four seconds. As you feel your belly rise, hold your breath for one to two seconds. Slowly breathe out for three to four seconds. You can repeat this as many times as you need; if it helps, visualize the word “calm” as you breathe. This will help set you up for a successful workout.
A November 2020 study found that wearing both surgical masks and cloth (cotton) masks during exercise had no effect on time to exhaustion or peak power. Choosing a mask in a sweat-wicking material (like polyester) or another more breathable, synthetic material may be the way to go. While surgical masks are still a great option, they have the potential to become heavy and uncomfortable as you sweat.
If you prefer an N95 mask, that works too. The same study also observed participants wearing N95 masks during aerobic exercise and found that those wearing them did have slightly increased levels of carbon dioxide in their breaths, but that participants didn’t complain of any symptoms like breathing issues, chest tightness, or headaches.
One of the biggest downers of wearing a mask while working out is that your sweat will likely saturate your mask. An easy fix is to have a second mask on hand that you can switch out, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This is especially helpful if your workout will be longer than 30 minutes, or will have a higher intensity level.
While your mask should cover both your mouth and your nose, you should focus on breathing through your nose rather than your mouth. As you fatigue, you may resort to mouth-breathing, but try to avoid this. Breathing through your nose will decrease the amount of moisture in your mask, since your nose works as a filter for this, according to Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
This breathing method is often used in yoga, and helps regulate your breathing, according to the University of Alberta.
To practice box breathing, breathe in for two seconds, hold it for two seconds. Then breathe out completely and relax the chest and abdomen muscles for two seconds. Stay relaxed for two seconds before starting to breathe in again.
Taking a break to add this coping method into your workout can make a huge difference in how comfortable you feel breathing in a mask.
While you should feel okay wearing a mask while you exercise, it still may take your body a bit to adjust. So if you feel any of the following symptoms, you should stop exercising for a bit until your symptoms subside, according to the Mayo Clinic. These include: Overall discomfort, fatigue, dizziness, headache, significant shortness of breath, muscular weakness, and drowsiness.
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About the author
Emily Shiffer is a former digital web producer for Men's Health and Prevention magazines, and she is currently a freelance writer specializing in health, nutrition, weight loss, and fitness. Her work has been published in digital and print formats for Women’s Health, Runner’s World, SELF, Health and more. She is based in Pennsylvania and loves all things antiques, music, and American history.