Although there has been some controversy around wearing face coverings, some studies have shown, when worn properly and universally, masks may slow the spread of coronavirus infections (1)(2)(3). The belief is face masks help prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading the virus to others (also called source control). So, as mask wearing is widely adopted as a social behavior, individuals wearing masks protect each other (4)(5).
Although mask wearing in public has become a social norm, and in many places a requirement, some clients may still have concerns with wearing a face mask during exercise. We’ll explore what the experts have shared so far about selecting the right face mask (in regard to slowing the spread of the virus) and face masks during exercise.
Considerations for Selecting a Face Mask
To slow the spread of the virus, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have a few recommendations for selecting an appropriate mask.
The CDC recommends individuals select a non-medical face mask that:
Has 2+ layers of fabric
Covers both the nose and mouth with fabric
Is made of a washable and breathable fabric
Fits snuggly without any gaps
Doesn’t have vents or valves as they may allow the virus particles to escape (6)
The WHO includes most of the same recommendations as the CDC, but they have a few slight additions/modifications:
Masks should be at least 3 layers
Fabric layer closest to the face should be hydrophilic material (e.g., cotton)
Hydrophilic material: fabric that absorbs moisture
Middle layer of fabric should be a polypropylene fabric or another layer of fabric
Acts as a filter
Third layer of fabric (outer layer) should be a hydrophobic material (e.g., polyester or polyester/cotton blend)
Hydrophobic material: fabric that repels moisture
People over the age of 60 or those with underlying health conditions should wear medical masks (7).
What About a Neck Gaiter or Face Shield?
Neck gaiters and a face shields are not currently recommended because their efficacy is still unknown. However, there are certain individuals that may want to consider wearing a face shield as an alternative to a mask:
Individuals interacting with someone reliant on lipreading or has trouble hearing (if a clear mask or alternate way to communicate is not an option)
People with certain mental, intellectual, or developmental conditions
Young children, over the age of 2, that have a difficult time properly wearing a mask
Although more research is needed, if face shields are used, the CDC has provided a few recommendations:
Face shields should extend below the chin and wrap about both sides of the face
Consider hooded face shields
Throw away single-use face shields after use
Disinfect reusable face shields by following the instructions from the manufacturer of the face shield (5)
Face Masks and Exercise
Although many gyms have reopened and are working hard to disinfect and keep clients safe, not all gym-goers are rushing back to their gym routines. While there are likely a variety of reasons for this, the concerns surrounding mask wearing during exercise is a contributor. Let’s look at what the experts are saying about wearing a face mask during a workout.
The following are recommendations from the CDC:
Individuals should not wear a mask during activities that would cause the mask to become wet because a damp mask may make it hard to breathe.
Individuals participating in high-intensity exercise may want to consider an outdoor workout without a mask (while physical distancing) (5).
The WHO, however, states that masks should NOT be worn during exercise because the mask can impact the ability to breathe comfortably, become wet (making it harder to breathe), and may promote bacteria growth (8).
Because more research is still needed, the WHO and CDC have slight variations in their recommendations, and most gyms do have a mask requirement, there are a few things to consider if your clients are going to wear a mask during exercise:
1. Check with a doctor. Before exercising with a mask, clients should check with their doctor. Exercising with a face mask might increase risks for those with chronic diseases (especially metabolic, respiratory, or cardiovascular) (9).
2. Have clients bring an extra mask (or two). Experts have shared that a wet mask can decrease breathability. So, if sweat or respiratory droplets make the mask damp during exercise, clients may want to consider changing their mask before continuing their workout. Remind clients to bring a few masks on days they’ll have an intense workout.
3. Encourage clients to listen to their body. If a client starts to feel dizzy, lightheaded, or has trouble breathing during exercise, they should consider removing the mask (while socially distant) (9).
As research continues and additional data is provided, guidance from the experts can change. So, it’s important to stay informed of new studies and recommendations as they become available.
To stay informed of recommendations from the CDC and WHO, you can visit their websites:
Center for Disease Control
World Health Organization
If you’re passionate about helping others and committed to creating a healthier society, you should consider becoming a personal trainer. ISSA’s Personal Training Certification is a leader in fitness education with a certification program that you can complete from the comfort of your home!
Brooks JT, Butler JC, Redfield RR. “Universal Masking to Prevent SARS-CoV-2 Transmission—The Time Is Now.” JAMA. 2020;324(7):635–637.
Hendrix MJ, Walde C, Findley K, Trotman R. “Absence of Apparent Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from Two Stylists After Exposure at a Hair Salon with a Universal Face Covering Policy — Springfield, Missouri, May 2020.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020; 69:930-932.
Lyu, W and Wehby, G. “Community Use of Face Masks And COVID-19: Evidence From A Natural Experiment Of State Mandates In The US.” Health Affairs. 2020; 39(8).
Center for Disease Control. (2020, July 14). “CDC calls on Americans to wear masks to prevent COVID-19 spread.” Cdc.Gov. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p0714-americans-to-wear-masks.html
Center for Disease Control. (2020, August 7). “Considerations for Wearing Masks.” Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html
Center for Disease Control. (2020, August 27). “How to Select, Wear, and Clean Your Mask.” Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html
World Health Organization. (2020, August 5). “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks.” Who.int. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks
World Health Organization. “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: Mythbusters.” Who.int. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters. Accessed October 3, 2020.
Chandrasekaran, B and Fernandes, S. “Exercise with facemask; Are we handling a devil's sword? - A physiological hypothesis.” Medical hypotheses. 2020; 144.