Before 2020, we didn’t know a whole lot about how wearing a mask affects us during exercise. Now masks have become a necessity, but many people assume wearing one will make a workout more difficult (and therefore, more unpleasant). Luckily, two brand new studies have debunked the mask myth. Wearing a mask during exercise actually won’t make your workout harder.
The first study was published this September in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. Because it was conducted with COVID-19 in mind, researchers focused on disposable surgical masks and N95 respiratory masks. They brought 16 active and healthy adult men into the lab and measured their blood pressure, heart rates, respiratory rates, oxygen saturation and carbon dioxide levels.
After recording their vitals, researchers put a thin nasal tube on each of the men to test their breath during exercise. Then the participants rode a stationary bicycle, completing a pedal-to-exhaustion test. Researchers steadily increased the resistance until the men could hardly pedal anymore. As the participants endured an intense workout, researchers monitored their physiological stats and checked in frequently, asking riders how difficult the exercise felt.
The men completed this workout on three different occasions. The first time, they wore no mask. The second time, they wore a surgical mask. The third time, they tested out the N95. When all the data was collected, researchers compared the participants’ physiological response to their feelings about the experience.
The results showed that wearing a mask did not affect participants on a physical level, nor did it affect how hard the exercise felt. The masks didn’t make riders more exhausted. On the contrary, masks didn’t seem to affect them at all. The only notable difference was a slightly higher level of carbon dioxide in the breath while wearing the N95 mask. This is likely due to their snug fit on the face. This difference was imperceptible to the riders.
The participants were surprised. They expected their performance to be hindered by the mask, as many of us have.
In the second study, published this November in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14 participants performed the same three pedal-to-exhaustion workouts. Both men and women were included this time. The N95 mask was swapped out for a three-layer cloth mask instead, which the average fitness fanatic is more likely to have. (It is also worth noting that N95 masks should be saved for healthcare professionals.) The paper surgical mask was tested again as well.
The results of the second study confirmed what was discovered in the first. Once again, wearing a mask did not change how difficult the workout felt. This time, the researchers were the ones surprised. They too hypothesized that wearing a mask would make exercise more difficult. They were proven wrong.
Researchers from both studies believe it’s likely these results apply to other forms of exercise, like running or weight lifting. If wearing a mask has stopped you from exercising how you used to, these studies offer an encouraging message. Next time you head out the door for a workout, wear your mask with confidence.