As the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, more cities and states are adopting mask mandates.
Many gyms and indoor training facilities require masks when working out to help slow the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19.
A new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that wearing a mask does not hinder performance or oxygen levels.
Though gyms and fitness studios have slowly reopened, that doesn’t mean the spread of coronavirus is under control. To help mitigate the spread, many gyms and indoor training facilities require clients to wear masks or face coverings. The good news: Early research suggests they don’t actually hinder your performance in terms of time to exhaustion or peak power output, and had no discernible negative effect on blood or muscle oxygenation levels, rate of perceived exertion, or heart rate in young, healthy adults.
Researchers at the University of Saskatchewan gathered a small sample of 7 men and 7 women, ranging from slightly inactive (not meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week in Canada) to elite cyclists and tested the effects of wearing a three-layer cloth face mask, a surgical mask, and no mask on their exercise performance. (The Association of American Medical Colleges suggests that cloth masks should have at least two layers whenever possible to be most effective.)
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Phil Chilibeck, Ph.D. professor from the University of Saskatchewan College of Kinesiology and co-author of this study explained to Runner's World how study participants began by beginning with a warm-up on stationary bikes before participating in progressive-intensity exercise tests that involved maintaining pedal rate while resistance increases gradually, until reaching exhaustion - his co-author being recorded every 30 seconds for heart rate, blood oxygen saturation levels, perceived exertion level.
Each of the three tests were done on a different day to allow full recovery between tests, Chilibeck added. Additionally, participants were required to maintain similar diet, sleep, and exercise routines for 24 hours before each test.
The results, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that wearing a mask had no effect on performance or muscle oxygen levels. Since there was no difference in time to exhaustion between conditions, the peak power reached at the end of each test was similar in mask and no-mask conditions for all participants, Chilibeck explained. Researchers also did not see any effects of the masks during exercise on arterial (blood) oxygen levels, which would decrease if breathing was affected.
And while droplet spread was not measured, all masks used were tested in a previous study in which they were shown to effectively minimize droplet spread, according to Chilibeck.
Though participants were of various fitness levels, it's essential to keep in mind that this research focused on only 14 young, healthy adults; further research must be performed with larger populations to draw meaningful conclusions regarding general population.
Study participants engaged in physical exertion for up to 12 minutes on a stationary bike during this study. Stationary bikes are commonly used in studies because they allow for more control, but additional research on runners in particular for longer efforts will be needed to understand how masks affect a sustained, sub-maximal effort such as a half marathon or marathon.
Face coverings can make exercise feel more difficult for some, but that perceived effect could be influenced by a number of factors including psychosomatic elements, humidity, and prolonged intensity, but there is no evidence they affect blood oxygen levels.
Still, this early research shows promising evidence that wearing a mask has no discernible negative effect on performance yet provides major benefits for slowing the spread of this deadly disease.
As Runner’s World previously reported, wearing a mask, maintaining an ample distance between yourself and others, and washing you hands regularly are some of the best ways to keep yourself and others healthy.
“If people wear face masks during indoor exercise, it might make the sessions safer and allow gyms to stay open during COVID,” Chilibeck said in a news release.
Check your state and local guidelines for more details on community spread and any restrictions in place in your area.