Exercising With a Face Mask: Safety Do’s and Don’ts

July 15, 2020 - 9 minutes read

Couple wearing face masks on their way to exercise

Stay-at-home directives are beginning to ease throughout the country and, as more and more restrictions are lifted, people are getting excited about resuming some typical, pre-pandemic activities – like returning to their favourite gyms and fitness studios.

But for those who are ready to switch from exercising with household objects to getting back to the studio for an in-person workout, it’s isn’t quite as simple as just grabbing a pair of runners and heading back in. Questions about physical distancing and other safety precautions for studios reopening during COVID-19 are sure to be top of mind, with one big question being asked across the board: “Should I wear a face mask when I workout?”

Is it safe to exercise while wearing a face mask?

The current recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) states that people should refrain from wearing face masks while exercising whenever possible, opting instead for practicing proper physical distancing measures to ensure safety. In cases where space limitations make distancing unattainable, face masks may have to be worn and are considered generally safe for people who are healthy.

For those dealing with a pre-existing cardiovascular or respiratory conditions such as: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), bronchitis, cystic fibrosis or pulmonary fibrosis, extra caution may be required if you choose to work out with a mask. The severity of your condition will dictate whether or not a mask is appropriate so it’s always a good idea to discuss your options with your doctor to see what’s right for you.

Do I need to wear a mask at the gym?

Whether or not you’re required to wear a mask at the gym is entirely dependent on the regulations that have been put in place for your area, as well as the policies of the facility.

Currently throughout most of Canada (as of July 16, 2020), the Public Health Agency (PHA) “recommends wearing a mask in areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained”. This means that wearing a mask is encouraged but not mandated in an enclosed gym facility, unless they have physical distancing measures in place. In many cases, it’s up to you and your gym to weigh out the risks vs rewards of wearing a mask during your workout and make that decision based on the safest option.

For current updates on the PHA recommendations, keep an eye on the Government of Canada COVID regulations.

How hard should you work out while wearing a face covering?

It’s always important to monitor exercise intensity to ensure a safe and effective workout, but it’s even more essential to do so when wearing a mask. Placing any type of covering over the nose and mouth decreases the flow of air into the lungs and lowers the distribution of oxygen to your working muscles. Closely mimicking the experience of altitude training, this makes exercise feel more difficult than it would with a regular flow of air and causes you to fatigue faster than you normally would without a mask.

After a few weeks of training with a mask, your body should start to become more efficient at metabolizing oxygen, but to prevent over-exhersion as your body adapts, start slow and build upon the intensity as you feel yourself gradually improving.

If at any point during a workout you experience symptoms of dizziness, light-headedness or shortness of breath, slow down or reduce the intensity of the exercise until they go away. If the symptoms persist after reducing the demand, stop exercising entirely and remove the covering (being sure to maintain physical distancing standards when you do) to allow for a better flow of air.

Two men exercising with face masks

What’s the best type of face mask to wear while exercising?

While there are many options of face coverings available, the best choice for a repeated-use activity such as exercise is a cloth mask made with multiple layers of fabric. This type of mask reduces the spread of large respiratory droplets, is reusable, and can easily be cleaned by simply tossing it into the washing machine with the rest of your gym gear.

Before committing to a full workout with your cloth mask, test it out while performing daily activities and see how it fares. If your breathing is restricted wearing the mask prior to exercise, it won’t be a good option when your breathing rate is elevated. Try searching out a mask made of a different type of fabric instead.

If you don’t have a cloth mask readily available, it’s okay to temporarily opt for a single-use medical mask. Try to replace it with something more sustainable as soon as possible though to reserve critical supply for healthcare workers. Avoid using scarves or bandanas as they don’t typically fit snug around the nose and mouth, and steer clear of neck gaiters that are designed to keep the face and neck warm. You want heat to dissipate from the body during exercise, not collect it.

Tips for wearing a mask during exercise

The following tips will help you remain safe and reduce the spread of COVID-19 while wearing a face mask during your workouts:

  • For a mask to fit properly, it should sit closely over the mouth, nose, cheeks and chin
  • Be sure to wash your hands with soap and water prior to putting on your mask
  • Try not to fidget with your mask while working out, and don’t pull it down when you talk
  • If you need to increase the flow of air during a workout due to dizziness or shortness of breath, establish proper physical distancing prior to removing your mask
  • Always remove your mask by the ear loops and wash your hands immediately after
  • Masks should only be worn by one person and not shared amongst friends or family members
  • If you typically sweat a lot during your workouts, think about bringing a second mask and replacing it when the first mask becomes damp
  • If using a cloth mask, wash it regularly to ensure you have a clean, dry mask available for each workout

The takeaway

Face masks are becoming more and more prevalent in everyday society and, in cases where physical distancing can’t be maintained, may be a good option to add to your exercise gear. In cases where you have to wear a face mask during your workouts, remember that these coverings reduce the flow of oxygen to your lungs, so it’s important to reduce the intensity of your workout and monitor your breathing to prevent symptoms of dizziness and lightheadedness.

While these are best practices for the current state of Canada, COVID-19 recommendations are constantly changing so be sure to regularly check the CDC and WHO websites for updated recommendations on preventive measures for your area.