Health Care

Do I Need to Wear a Workout Mask?

A man wearing a mask and cleaning fitness equipment in a gym.
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It’s essential to wear a face covering whenever you’re in public and unable to keep a social distance of at least 6 ft from others. This guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sounds simple, but has raised questions: Does that mean outdoors, too? Are workout masks necessary?

To best answer these questions, it’s first important to understand why a face covering is so important.

Why Do I Need a Face Covering?

An editorial was published in July 2020 by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), proving that cloth face coverings could reduce the spread of coronavirus, especially when used consistently by everyone.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus — particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”

We know from new research that it is possible to have COVID-19 and not show symptoms. This is a big reason why it’s so important for everyone to wear a mask, even if they think they are healthy. If you have the virus and are asymptomatic, the mask can help stop the spread — and if you do not have the virus and are healthy, your mask may prevent you from catching the virus from someone else.

Wearing a Mask Outdoors

The CDC recommends that we wear cloth face coverings in public settings when we’re around people who don’t live in the same household, especially when social distancing is difficult to maintain. So, the short answer is that yes, you may need a mask outdoors if you’re going to be around others.

If you’re headed to a state park and don’t anticipate crowds, it’s a good idea to bring a mask with you just in case it turns out to be crowded and you can’t maintain a 6-foot distance from others.

In some areas, masks are mandatory outside, so check with your local department of health for any rules in your community. In Hong Kong, for example, not wearing a mask outside could mean a hefty fine. At amusement parks including Walt Disney World, masks are mandatory to wear indoors and outdoors.

Wearing a Mask While Working Out

Many people have concerns about wearing a mask while exercising. But remember, wearing a mask protects others from any possible germs you may have, and those germs spread through droplets coming from your mouth and nose.

During an intense workout, where you may be breathing heavier or coughing, there’s an increased chance of spreading those respiratory droplets. This is why workout masks are recommended (and sometimes mandatory), indoors or out, if you can’t maintain social distancing. Some national gyms have recently mandated the wearing of masks inside their facilities, whether you’re lifting weights or on the treadmill.

The CDC recognizes that, “People who are engaged in high-intensity activities, like running, may not be able to wear a cloth face covering if it causes difficulty breathing.” If this describes your situation and you feel unable to wear a cloth face covering, they suggest to “consider conducting the activity in a location with greater ventilation and air exchange (for instance, outdoors versus indoors) and where it is possible to maintain physical distance from others.”

There are other certain instances where the CDC recommends adaptations and alternatives to be considered when wearing a mask isn’t feasible. They also suggest to, “make sure to take other measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread, including social distancing, frequent hand washing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces” when a face covering can’t be worn.

Best Types of Masks for Outdoors and Exercise

A cloth face mask is suitable for most people, but if you plan to be outdoors or working out while wearing one, you may want to test out a few masks made of different materials to see which feels most comfortable for you. It’s important to always bring a spare face covering along too, since they aren’t intended to be worn if they become damp.

Try to find a mask that is at least two layers of fabric, but allows you to still breathe comfortably. If at first, it seems difficult to wear a covering while going for a walk or working out, a good way to help regulate your breathing is by taking a slow breath in for four seconds, hold for four seconds and then exhale slowly over four seconds. This breathing technique can help regain control of your breath and will fill your lungs with oxygen to bring you back to baseline.

In a study published by the  American Chemical Society, researchers from the University of Chicago tested the filtration efficiencies of common fabrics, including cotton, silk, and polyester-spandex chiffon. The scientists found that masks made with a combination of fabrics, such as high thread count cotton with two layers of chiffon, were nearly as effective as an N95 medical-grade mask, filtering out 80% to 99% of particles when tested.

In general, it’s most important to ensure whatever type of mask you choose is worn correctly, breathable, and doesn’t have any gaps around your face.

Face Mask Hygiene

Before putting on or removing your cloth face mask, wash your hands thoroughly to prevent any germs from your hands spreading into your respiratory system. To help ensure the effectiveness of your face covering, also consider these tips:

  • Avoid touching the mask while it’s on your face

  • Put on and remove your mask by the ear loops or ties rather than touching the front of the mask

  • Sanitize your mask often, either by hand washing or putting it in the washing machine

Who Shouldn’t Wear a Face Covering?

The great majority of people should be wearing masks in public settings. However, according to the CDC, face coverings should not be worn by:

  • Anyone who has trouble breathing

  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the covering without assistance

  • Children younger than 2

  • People who are engaging in swimming or other activity where the mask could become wet

Stay Informed and Stay Healthy

Wearing a mask may feel like an inconvenience, but it’s a simple, critical tool in helping protect ourselves and others. To learn more about the effectiveness of face coverings, visit the CDC. Find updates and answers to many coronavirus questions on our Coronavirus Resource Hub.

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