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Tips For Wearing A Mask While Exercising

Our Fit For You segment addresses how to exercise safely with a mask on.

As gyms reopen, members are weighing the risk of working out in common areas again. While coronavirus safety policies can vary gym to gym, the Wisconsin statewide mask mandate requires that everyone 5 and up wears a mask indoors — even while working out.

While wearing a mask during exercise may be uncomfortable, it's certainly safe and doable, according to Dr. Sandra Hunter. She's a professor in exercise science at the Marquette University Department of Physical Therapy and the director of the Athletic and Human Performance Research Center

When you wear a mask while exercising, research shows the most common responses of the body include labored breathing and a slightly increased heart rate.

"There is this idea that [wearing a mask] can cause problems or can lead to problems with CO2 rebreathing. However, it will depend on the type of mask," she explains.

CO2 rebreathing is when you inhale higher levels of freshly expelled CO2 and less oxygen in a tight-fitting mask, such as an N95 mask.

"Together they can lead to dizziness, lightheadedness, increased heart rate and even altitude sickness if it gets really extreme, which can be nausea ... However, I would never recommend that you're exercising at high intensity with an N95 mask," explains Hunter. 

Hunter shares some tips for those wearing masks while exercising:

Avoid disposable surgical masks

Most masks available are breathable enough to exercise in. But Hunter suggests not wearing a disposable surgical mask while exercising because it can easily become wet, decreasing its effectiveness.

"The best mask I found was just a regular cloth mask without two layers and it allowed me still to breathe," she says.

Find the right material and fit

Moisture-wicking material is best, but remember the thicker the material the more difficult it is to breathe in. Find a mask that is comfortable and protective. 

You do need some small amount of ventilation, but make sure it's tight enough to offer some protection.

>>A User's Guide To Masks: What's Best At Protecting Others (And Yourself)

Note how you feel

When you start your normal exercise routine in a mask, adjust your level of intensity from the beginning and take note of how you're feeling. If you feel lightheaded or dizzy, stop and take a break. Over time you can work up to your desired level of intensity. 

Overall, Hunter says to "experiment [with different types of masks] and listen to your body. Your body's going to be telling you what you need and you will just need to get used to it because I think this will be the new normal for quite some time."

Hunter notes it may take a few weeks, but over time you can work up to your desired level of intensity.

Pay attention to your surroundings

Indoor exercise, even with a mask on, means sharing space and air with others. Being outside will give you more opportunities to distance yourself with better ventilation. If there's no one else around, you can workout without a mask — but always have one on you.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.