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How to exercise with a face mask

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As Virginia eases into Stage 3 and stay-at-home orders become less strict, many “non-essential” businesses have begun reopening their doors – including fitness studios and gyms.

While it can be tempting to return to your local Life Time Fitness or YMCA (anything to get out of the house, right?) there are likely a slew of anxiety-induced questions running through your head: Is it safe to go in public spaces? Do I still need to stay six feet away from other people exercising? How vigorously do I need to wipe down equipment after each use?

Of course, you could continue your at-home workout routine and save yourself the stress. But if you’re anything like me, you’re probably getting sick of sleeping, working and exercising in the same space.

To help with my stir-craziness, I’ve since begun exercising outdoors. Which brings up another anxiety-induced question: Do I have to wear a face mask when I’m outside?

The short answer is yes. Though it’s not as dangerous as being inside supermarkets without a facial covering, COVID-19 can still be spread through people taking their daily walks. The virus doesn’t disappear just because you’re in nature. And though Virginia does not require its residents to wear a face mask outside, other states do – and the CDC encourages it, especially when social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.

So what is the safest and most comfortable way to wear a face mask while exercising outside? Here are some do’s and don’ts that may help you navigate your outdoor fitness routine in this strange, new world.

Is it safe to exercise with a face mask on?

The answer is yes, but some masks are better than others. According to recent studies by physical therapists, most people can perform every and all exercises with a face mask on. However, it’s important to pay extra attention to how you are feeling while working out with a mask and watching out for specific symptoms that could harm your health, such as lightheadedness, dizziness, numbness or shortness of breath.

Therefore, it may be worth investing in a mask designed for maximum breathability and comfort. Consider looking into masks designed by Nike or Athleta (or any other workout brand, really) if you’re interested.

What happens when you exercise with a face mask on?

Compared with normal breathing, wearing any kind of protective mask decreases the flow of air into your lungs. Less oxygen in your lungs means less oxygen in your bloodstream and your working muscles, which may make training more difficult.

To combat this hurdle, be extra conscientious about staying hydrated. If you are at a safe social distance from passersby, allow yourself to remove your mask for a “breathing break” from time to time.

Who should not wear a mask while exercising?

This is a similar answer to those who were labeled as “high risk” when this began back in March. If you have underlying cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, be sure to take caution when exercising with a face mask on. Also note that severity of these conditions may dictate whether or not it’s appropriate to exercise with a face mask on.

Examples of such conditions include asthma, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and any other conditions that affect the heart or lungs. If you have a cardiovascular or respiratory condition, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor about exercising with a face mask before attempting to do it.

Regardless of whether you’re “high risk” or are a medal-donning Iron Man, you may be quick to become lightheaded or short of breath the first few times you exercise with a face mask outside. Luckily, the body will adjust. However, if the symptoms don’t go away relatively soon, experts advise to take your face mask off and breath normally – at a safe social distance to others, of course.

No matter how fit you are, you are likely to get more easily fatigued while exercising with a mask on outdoors – but when it comes to safety and limiting the spread of COVID-19, the pros may outweigh the cons on this one.