How to use a cloth face mask while exercising

Health & Wellness

When working out in a gym, besides wearing a mask, be sure to use hand sanitizer, wipe down each piece of equipment both before and after exercising and leave a buffer zone between yourself and other individuals.

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You can safely work out while wearing a mask

While it was a bumpy start, most individuals now seem to recognize the logic behind wearing a mask to protect others. Whether you’re in a situation where the air exchange isn’t ideal or you physically can’t be distant from others, it’s a simple task to temporarily don a mask until the risk factors are once again reduced.

However, when it comes to working out, there’s still a bit of resistance to wearing a mask. This is often fueled by anxiety that triggers a panic response: “I can’t breathe!” For individuals with no underlying health conditions, wearing a cloth mask while exercising poses no appreciable limitations. However, the anxiety that occurs from feeling like air is being restricted can cause a variety of unfavorable reactions that can diminish the quality of your workout.

Fortunately, once you learn a little more about which dangers are real and which are nonexistent, fear is a factor that can be overcome so you can have a worry-free workout.

Is it dangerous to wear a mask while exercising?

There are three primary reasons why individuals are hesitant to wear a mask while exercising: fear that oxygen intake is reduced, fear that carbon dioxide levels increase and underlying medical conditions.

Does wearing a mask reduce oxygen intake? 

We’re used to breathing with no restrictions. When working out, the body’s demand for oxygen increases three to four times. Wearing a mask makes it feel like we can’t get the oxygen needed, so despite our best efforts, most of us panic.

Fortunately, a cloth mask doesn’t form an airtight seal over your mouth and nose, and while it may take a little more effort to breathe, your oxygen intake is not affected.

One study performed in Canada last year monitored heart rate and arterial blood oxygen saturation levels as individuals cycled at 70-75 revolutions per minute under three different mask conditions: no mask, a three-ply surgical mask and a three-layer cloth mask (bamboo charcoal cloth, non-woven fabric and Lycra). The study concluded that “For healthy, active people, wearing a face mask during vigorous exercise has minimal effect on arterial or muscle oxygen levels and no effects on exercise performance.”

Does wearing a mask increase carbon dioxide levels in the air you breathe? 

For the same reason a cloth mask doesn’t diminish oxygen levels, it doesn’t trap carbon dioxide, either. According to the CDC, “CO2 molecules are small enough to easily pass through any cloth mask material,” so the carbon dioxide is able to completely escape the mask with every breath. In contrast, the virus is carried on respiratory droplets, which are larger than carbon dioxide, so wearing a mask helps decrease transmission.

Is it safe to wear a mask while exercising if I have an underlying medical condition?

Unfortunately, if you have an underlying medical condition, you might not get the thumbs-up from your doctor. Individuals with an acute and chronic respiratory condition or any other health condition that requires limiting physical exertion need to consult their doctor before engaging in any type of exercise regimen, regardless of whether a mask is worn.

What is self-monitoring?

Situational anxiety is real. Just because you know you’re getting enough oxygen and you’re certain you’re not inhaling carbon dioxide doesn’t mean you won’t still worry about it. Breathing through a cloth, after all, isn’t natural, so it doesn’t feel normal. Whether it’s a mild sense of unease or full-on panic, this discomfort can exacerbate the situation and cause problems such as lightheadedness, which can make exercising an unsafe activity.

It’s important to learn how to self-monitor so you can recognize the point when anxiety creates symptoms that become dangerous. Self-monitoring involves paying attention to your body so you know when you need to pause or stop your workout. 

If you’d like to go a step further, a pulse oximeter is a small device that clips over your finger and monitors the oxygen levels in your blood. While this device isn’t necessary, it can help alleviate anxiety by providing proof that your blood oxygen levels are fine. 

Warning signs that you need to stop exercising

Knowing when you need to pause your workout and sit down or step outside to remove your mask for a few minutes is ultimately what will keep you safe. Following are five key warning signs to pay attention to.

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Drowsiness

Features that make a cloth mask effective

According to the CDC, an effective cloth mask must fit snugly on your face, leaving no large side gaps while fully covering both your nose and your mouth. The mask should have two to three layers and feature no exhalation valves or vents. The mask should be breathable, but manufactured using tightly woven cottons or cotton blends. 

Tips for working out while wearing a cloth mask

  • Practice mask wearing. Wear your mask around your home while doing chores to help you get acclimated to the feeling of wearing a mask.
  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands before putting the mask on your face.
  • Avoid the temptation to adjust. Your hands are dirty the instant you touch the gym equipment; adjusting your mask will place germs on your face.
  • Bring a backup mask. A mask that gets wet from perspiration won’t be as effective and it will make breathing difficult. 
  • Keep your glasses fog-free. If you wear glasses, consider using an anti-fog spray to keep your glasses clear.
  • Use a mask with a nose wire. Another solution for glasses that fog up is to purchase a mask with a nose wire so the mask can form a tighter seal on your nose to help prevent fogging.
  • Start slow. You may need to lower the intensity level of your workouts until you feel comfortable wearing a mask while exercising.
  • Consider a different mask. Each mask fits and feels a little different. If you’re having trouble with one, consider trying a mask from another manufacturer. 
  • Take breaks or stop as needed. If you notice any warning signs, take a break, step outside, remove your mask, assess your condition and make sure you’re good to go before attempting to begin again.
  • Wash your mask after every workout. Bacteria and viruses can live on fabric — wash your mask(s) after every workout.
  • Think of the future. When you finally get to exercise without a mask, you’ll feel invincible.

Best face masks for exercise

Under Armour Adult Sports Mask

Under Armour Adult Sports Mask

This mask offers a comfortable performance fit with a bendable nose bridge that allows the upper part of the mask to lay flat against the face, making it a good option for the active user.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Kohl’s

Reebok Face Mask

Reebok Face Mask

A three-pack of affordable face masks designed to sit comfortably on your face with no sliding down the nose. The soft, breathable material makes these masks comfortable to wear while working out.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon and Dick’s Sporting Goods

QueensFace Face Mask

QueensFace Face Mask

There are two layers of fabric in this lightweight mask. Even individuals who exercise with intensity comment that it’s easy to breathe throughout the entire workout session while wearing it.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Adidas Face Mask

Adidas Face Mask

With thicker fabric and a slightly smaller size, the Adidas masks in this three-pack fit snugly against the face. The masks offer two layers of fabric and are machine-washable for convenience.

Where to buy: Sold by Macy’s and Amazon

Under Armour Adult Project Rock Sportsmask Face Mask

Under Armour Project Rock Sportsmask Face Mask

This is Under Armour’s premium face mask. It costs a little more but offers a water-resistant shell with an antimicrobial treatment. The fabric feels cool to the touch, and your purchase includes a travel bag.

Where to buy: Sold by Dick’s Sporting Good

Allen Foster is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money.

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