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There has been a growing debate over the use of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic—when should you wear them and for how long, and which activities to avoid while wearing a mask are all questions that need more thought.

One of the reasons for this is that there have been some reports of people experiencing difficulty in performing tasks such as running or exercising while wearing masks—tasks that they were otherwise habituated to.

A 26-year-old man in Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 is believed to have originated, was taken to hospital after he complained of chest pain while running with a face mask on. According to reports, the man experienced difficulty breathing after a long run. It was found that the man's lungs had collapsed due to the intense activity he was performing with a mask on.

There have been similar incidents in other countries, too. This has raised concerns over the safety of face masks, especially while performing intense physical activity.

Wearing a mask and physical distancing are among the five key steps to fight COVID-19—the viral infection that has made over five million people sick and claimed over 338,500 lives globally as of 23 May.

In India, restrictions on movement are beginning to ease after two months. This means that many of us may be able to resume activities like working out in the park. Of course, the use of masks in public is mandatory to fight the new coronavirus infection. Read on to know about the workouts you can safely do while wearing a mask and which ones to avoid.

  1. Use of masks while performing physical exercises
  2. Tips to exercise and train while ensuring personal safety
  3. Doctors for Is it safe to exercise with a mask on?

A lot of us have been waiting for lockdown restrictions to lift, so we can go out running again. With many cities lifting stringent restrictions on movement now, it might soon become possible for many of us to exercise outdoors.

The Indian government has, of course, recommended the use of face masks or face covers in public places, in addition to respecting social or physical distancing rules—this obviously also applies to parks and roads.

How to run safely in the time of COVID-19

Runners, especially those who regularly participate in marathons or other long-distance events, can be seen wearing thin, tube-shaped fabrics to cover their faces while running, especially in places with high levels of pollution or in extreme heat or cold to protect themselves.

The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends the use of face covers when outdoors, but there hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence over the use of masks while training or exercising.

Of course, elite athletes or those used to training with masks or face covers may not experience any difficulty while performing an activity they are used to, but anyone trying to begin is bound to have difficulties breathing while having their face covered.

Research published in the Swiss journal Sports studied the effects of wearing airflow-restricting masks while performing resistance exercises, to compare the number of repetitions one could perform with the mask as well as without it. The researchers also the exertion caused while wearing the mask compared with working out without it.

The study showed that performing resistance exercises while wearing such masks increased the perception of exertion and decreased muscular performance, as well as blood lactate concentration as compared to exercising without a mask.

It also stated that the decrease in performance was due to the low air supply that influenced the central nervous system and stopped the exercise from doing biological damage.

Some global fitness companies and brands have also created specific masks that can be worn during training or exercising by elite athletes, but they tend to be expensive and are not for regular use.

For amateur runners, fitness experts have suggested removing face covers and masks and keeping them hanging on the neck while running or training, and pulling them up when coming across other people.

Who should not run with a mask on?

Those with underlying conditions or breathing difficulties, however, should not risk training or running with masks or face covers on for too long, as it can reduce their breathing capacity. Blood oxygen levels can drop due to prolonged use of masks and oxygen reaching the brain can also reduce as a result, leading to breathing difficulties and weakness.

With public parks and sports complexes reopening one by one, many of us will be itching to go outdoors and resume our favourite fitness activities.

However, it is important to look after one’s own health and take all the precautions to avoid COVID-19. Here are some activities and measures one can try during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • While running outdoors, keep the mask around your neck and pull it up to cover your nose and mouth every time you pass someone in the park or on the road. With summer temperatures also rising, keep yourself well-hydrated at all times.
  • Practice and maintain physical distancing even if running or training with other people.
  • You may be resuming intense physical activity after a long time, and it is all the more important to start slowly and build a rhythm before making your training more intense.
  • Play sports such as tennis and badminton, or engage activities like running instead of playing contact sports such as soccer or basketball, and avoid busy public swimming pools.
Dr. Arun R

Dr. Arun R

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

Dr. Neha Gupta

Dr. Neha Gupta

Infectious Disease
16 Years of Experience

Dr. Lalit Shishara

Dr. Lalit Shishara

Infectious Disease
8 Years of Experience

Dr. Alok Mishra

Dr. Alok Mishra

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

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  1. Porcari JP et al. Effect of Wearing the Elevation Training Mask on Aerobic Capacity, Lung Function, and Hematological Variables Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 2016 Jun; 15(2): 379–386. PMID: 27274679.
  2. Emergency Care Research Institute. [Internet] Plymouth, PA, USA. Safety of Extended Use and Reuse of N95 Respirators
  3. Motoyama YL et al. Airflow-Restricting Mask Reduces Acute Performance in Resistance Exercise Sports (Basel). 2016 Dec; 4(4): 46. PMID: 29910294.
  4. Beuther DA and Martin RJ. Efficacy of a Heat Exchanger Mask in Cold Exercise-Induced Asthma Chest. 2006 May; 129(5): 1188-1193.
  5. Menadue C et al. Breathing support via a mask during exercise training for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2014 May; 5: CD007714.
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