Study: Normal lung function remains intact during exercise despite mask wearing
Monday, December 07, 2020
There's no question that masks are uncomfortable, and they're more uncomfortable when you exercise. But evidence confirms — the lungs are no worse for wear when healthy people wear a face mask and work out.
Uncomfortable, Not Harmful
Are masks safe to wear during exercise?
While some have questioned the safety of mask-wearing because they don't want to wear a mask when they go the gym, others have held legitimate concerns.
Either way, we now know for sure: if you're healthy, wearing a mask while you exercise is uncomfortable, not harmful.
A study published last month in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society found that "there is little empirical evidence that wearing a facemask significantly diminishes lung function, even when worn during heavy exercise."
The study's authors explain that concerns about working harder to breathe, altered pulmonary gas exchange, and dyspnea (the medical term for labored breathing) stem from studies that evaluated devices meant to intentionally and severely affect breathing mechanics and gas exchange.
A Review of Mask Wearing and Exercise
The Canadian-American research team reviewed all the available scientific literature on the effects of facemasks and respiratory loading devices on the body's response to exercise.
As part of the review, the authors examined variables such as the amount of energy used to inhale and exhale, muscle blood flow, fatigue, cardiac function, blood flow to the brain, and arterial blood gasses.
They also examined perceptual responses to mask-wearing during physical activity.
Their review looked at several types of facemasks and respirators, including cloth face coverings, surgical masks, N95 respirators, industrial respirators, applied high resistive and high deadspace respiratory loads.
They concluded that "facemasks, including N95 respirators, surgical masks, and cloth facemasks, may increase dyspnea, but have small and often difficult to detect effects on the work of breathing, blood gases and other physiological parameters during physical activity, even with heavy/maximal exercise."
In other words, it feels harder to breathe when wearing a mask, but any actual difficulties are largely in our heads — the actual work of breathing and gas exchange is largely unaffected by mask wearing.
The authors also claim that there is no evidence to suggest that mask-wearing harms younger or older individuals.
They also found no evidence to support sex-based differences and mask-wearing during exercise.
Cardiopulmonary Disease and Dyspnea
However, wearing a mask during exercise can cause people with cardiopulmonary disease to experience some breathing difficulty.
According to the current study, "increased exertional dyspnea with a facemask" is possible for those with cardiopulmonary disease "due to small increases in resistance and re-inspiration of warmer and slightly enriched CO2 air."
The authors concluded that "such problems may serve as a basis for seeking exemptions from mask regulations, but the benefits of decreased dyspnea will need to be weighed [against] the risks of contracting the SARS-CoV-2 infection."
Be Safe, Comfy & Polite: Mask Wearing Alternatives for Exercise
Nothing is ideal during a pandemic. If you genuinely can't stand to wear a mask while you exercise, please consider safer alternatives to going "mask commando."
Try walking the perimeter of your yard, where there's no chance of coming into contact with others, or do a high-intensity interval training virtual class inside your home. Either option lets you skip the mask entirely while still keeping yourself and other safe.
While inconvenient, masks are still the best way to stop the spread of infection.
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