Why should you listen to me? I have a background in exercise science (B.Sc) and epidemiology (PhD). Since the pandemic hit, I read and wrote a lot about the coronavirus, including a review of cost-effective interventions to suppress COVID-19 and a series of long-form articles with Tomas Pueyo that have been viewed about 60 million times. I work for public health in Montreal, I curate the COVID-19 Science Updates, and I was recently in the news and on TV to discuss the virus.
Should you wear a face mask while working out or lifting weights? As with other things virus, not everyone agrees. What follows is a brief review of guidelines from official bodies, doctors, and scientists.
- In a post on Facebook, the WHO wrote that “People should NOT wear masks when exercising as masks may reduce the ability to breathe comfortably” (WHO, 2020).
- Writing for the American Council on Exercise, a group of exercise scientists opine that “Cloth masks are a very good option during exercise.” However, they note that “Individuals with a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition are encouraged to take caution when exercising with a face mask” and that these people “should consult […] with a medical professional” (Kravitz et al. 2020).
- In the British Journal of Sports Medicine, two doctors and scientists write that “Selecting an appropriate face-covering becomes an act of balancing benefits versus possible adverse events”. They add that masks “could potentially increase the breathing effort”, simulating altitude training on a smaller scale. Therefore, they say, “It would be prudent for people with existing heart or lung conditions to exercise at a lower intensity than usual while wearing a mask” (Blanco and Van Rensburg 2020).
- In a Q&A for Underarmour, Dr. Daniel J. Durand, MD, said that “If you’re running outdoors and you know that you aren’t going to get near anyone, it’s probably not necessary to wear a mask.” However, he notes that “Although no one has proven masks can prevent 100% of COVID-19 spread in the gym environment, there will be far fewer droplets if athletes have masks on, which should be safer for everyone.”
- Finally, Dr. Vera Etches, the Medical Officer of Health for Ottawa Public Health, said on TV that “you can’t be expected to exercise wearing a mask.”
In short, the medical and scientific community is split on working out with a mask
You can see that from the quotes above. Personally, I do work out with a mask. Why? If there’s even a small chance it saves a life, to me, it’s worth it. And I can still breathe OK when lifting heavy.
With all that said, masks are just one measure, and all authors insist on the importance of physical distancing. This is easier to do outside, or (of course) alone. For more tips on working out safely, check out Coronavirus, Exercise, and Health: An Evidence-Based Guide for Athletes & Lifters.
On a related note, a few readers asked about masks for the general public. On that topic, I side with Dr. Michael Osterholm, a leading public health scientist. He put it this way: “[The general public] should be made aware that [cloth] masks may provide some benefit in reducing the risk of virus transmission, but at best it can only be anticipated to be limited. Distancing remains the most important risk reduction action they can take” (Osterholm, 2020).
In closing, remember that COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation. The position of the authors cited above is likely to change as more evidence emerge. Also, to be fair, I have not carried out a full (systematic) review on this topic, so it’s likely some opinions are not represented. When in doubt, I would advise safety.
For a summary of recommendations for athletes and lifters, get the COVID-19 Checklist: Returning to the Gym Safely—5 Things to Consider. And if you’re looking for help with your training, you may want to try Dr. Muscle, our smart workout app that gets you in shape faster using science.
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