Wearing Face Masks During Exercise Won't Hinder Breathing or Impair Lung Function

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While wearing a face mask during a workout is not the most comfortable experience, two new studies out this month indicate that a mask won't be detrimental to your breathing during your activity. A recent University of Saskatchewan study has found that exercise performance and blood and muscle oxygen levels are not affected for healthy individuals wearing a face mask during strenuous workouts. Additionally, another new study by the University of California at San Diego looking at how face masks impact oxygen inhalation and carbon dioxide exhalation during exercise found similar results.

There have been many opponents to the use of face masks during this pandemic, who claim that coverings impair the cardiopulmonary system, making it harder to breathe. Some of those say that it will increase dyspnea, the shortness of breath one experiences during exercise. According to both of these studies' findings, while wearing a mask may be uncomfortable and even lead one to perceive dyspnea while working out, there is very little scientific evidence to support the assertion that masks significantly impair lung function.

The Saskatchewan study, published Nov. 3, 2020, in the research journal International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, evaluated the use of a three-layer cloth mask.

The study included 14 physically active and healthy men and women and attempted to control for the effects of diet, previous physical activity, and sleep during the 24 hours before the test. Participants did a brief warm-up on a stationary bike. The exercise test involved a gradual increase in the bike's intensity while participants maintained an instructed pedaling rate. Once they could not sustain the rate, the test was over.

"Our findings are of importance because they indicate that people can wear face masks during intense exercise with no detrimental effects on performance and minimal impact on blood and muscle oxygenation," the researchers state.

Dr. Tam continued. "This is important when fitness centers open up during COVID-19 since respiratory droplets may be propelled further with heavy breathing during vigorous exercise and because of reports of COVID-19 clusters in crowded enclosed exercise facilities."

In the San Diego study, published Nov. 16, 2020, in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, a team of American and Canadian researchers concluded that there is little empirical evidence that wearing a facemask significantly diminishes lung function, even when worn during heavy exercise. They did acknowledge that sensations of dyspnea might increase during activity, though.

"There might be a perceived greater effort with activity, but the effects of wearing a mask on the work of breathing, on gases like oxygen and CO2 in blood or other physiological parameters are small, often too small to be detected," said the study's first author Susan Hopkins, MD, PhD, professor at U.C. San Diego School of Medicine.

"There's also no evidence to support any differences by sex or age in physiological responses to exercise while wearing a facemask," added Hopkins, who specializes in exercise physiology and the study of lungs under stress.

The researchers came to their conclusions by reviewing multiple factors, such as work of breathing (the quantified energy expended to inhale and exhale), arterial blood gases, effects on muscle blood flow and fatigue, cardiac function and flow of blood to the brain and studied all known scientific literature published on the topic.

The only exception noted by the study authors may be persons with severe cardiopulmonary disease for whom any added resistance could prompt dyspnea that affects exercise capacity.

"Wearing a face mask can be uncomfortable. There can be tiny increases in breathing resistance. You may re-inhale warmer, slightly enriched CO2 air. And if you're exercising, the mask can cause your face to become hot and sweaty," Hopkins says.

In both studies, the authors concluded that a healthy person should have no problem wearing any type of face mask during variously intense activity.

Journal References:

University Of Saskatchewan Keely Shaw, Scotty Butcher, Jongbum Ko, Gordon A. Zello, Philip D. Chilibeck. Wearing of Cloth or Disposable Surgical Face Masks has no Effect on Vigorous Exercise Performance in Healthy Individuals. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2020; https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/17/21/8110b

University of San Diego Susan R Hopkins, Paolo B Dominelli, Christopher K Davis, Jordan A. Guenette, Andrew M Luks, Yannick Molgat-Seon, Rui Carlos Sá, A. William Sheel, Erik R Swenson, Michael K Stickland. Facemasks and the Cardiorespiratory Response to Physical Activity in Health and Disease. Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 2020; https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/10.1513/AnnalsATS.202008-990CME

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