The Masked Workout

Elite Fitness Tool or Big Sweaty Hassle?

To workout with a mask, or not to workout with a mask? It’s no longer a question, as a statewide mandate requires masks indoors at all New York fitness facilities. And while there is a plethora of opinions and anecdotes about the pros and cons, here’s a look at some of the most common questions, as well as some ways to enhance your experience while also keeping yourself and fellow members safe.

Why masks, anyway?

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing a cloth-based face covering in order to help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. Upon reviewing the latest scientific findings, the CDC confirms that cloth face coverings are “a critical tool” to slow the spread of the disease, and the use of masks has been shown to prevent the spread even when someone has a confirmed case. The science is still emerging, so expect updates as more evidence is presented. The New York State mandate specifies that only cloth-based masks that are snug fit and cover the nose and mouth are considered acceptable; gaiters and bandanas are not. (See the rest of the rules, here).

Masks and Oxygen

According to the American Lung Association, there has been no scientific evidence that oxygen levels are affected by wearing a mask. What the mask will do is help prevent the spread of the infection, and allow the economy to stay open. 

Masks and Exercise

The available evidence illustrating the effects of masks on heart rate and perceived rate of exertion (RPE) during exercise is growing, although the information is still slow to emerge. Initial results — conducted in small scale and often through self-experimentation — has yielded the practical realization that certain masks are better suited for various activities, and the type of mask you choose should reflect the workout you’re planning.

While masks have not been shown to decrease oxygen levels, there is some anecdotal and personal feedback that indicates masks can affect a wearer’s heart rate. According to American Council on Exercise president and chief science officer Cedric X. Bryant, “In my personal experience, heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” This means at higher rates of exertion, you could expect your heart rate to increase up to 10 beats more per minute, he explained. In fact, masks like this one seek to recreate this effect, while also purposefully restricting oxygen flow, in order to strengthen and improve the efficiency of an athlete’s breathing muscles and performance. 

Workouts outdoors do not require masks, but participants must maintain a six-foot social distance.

And while masks are required for germ prevention, new products are emerging to address various activity levels. Here are some recommendations and guidelines to ensure the most comfort and efficiency for your next indoor workout.

Avoid paper/surgical masks. Christa Janse van Rensburg, a professor of exercise science at the University of Pretoria in South Africa says that these types of masks become wet quickly during periods of exertion, and lose their ability to block outgoing germs. Instead, opt for masks made from breathable synthetic fabrics that are, at most, two layers thick, to both maximize germ control while avoiding facial overheating or bunching that might constrict breathing.

Make sure your mask is large enough. It should fit over your mask and your nose, but should also feel comfortably snug around your cheeks and nose. It shouldn’t feel restrictive prior to your workout; if it does, it’ll be too fidgety for your workout. 

Carry extras. If your workout will be longer than 30 minutes, it’s a good idea to pack extras. Also, when swapping masks, try not to touch the front of the used mask, since any germs could have accumulated there. You should always start your workout with a freshly washed mask.

Consider a silicone insert. A silicone insert, like this, helps keep your mask in place but out of your nose. This is especially helpful when breathing at an elevated rate — it will help keep the fabric from “sucking in” and will allow your nose to remain clear. A few of our instructors swear by them as “game changing,” and they are typically durable, lightweight, washable, and reusable. 

Regardless of what mask you choose, it is always a good idea to follow your own indicators. If you feel lightheaded or short of breath, slow down or stop, and reassess. With a few extra masks and some attention to your own physical feedback, you can enjoy your indoor workouts, maximize your efforts, and even grow stronger and more efficient as a result. See you in the clubs!