Face masks don’t impede breathing during exercise, but your mind may think they will

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Wearing a face mask during a work out probably won’t be the most comfortable experience in the world. Luckily, that mask won’t be detrimental to your breathing. That’s the conclusion of a new study by the University of California, San Diego looking at how face masks impact oxygen inhalation and carbon dioxide exhalation during exercise.

Many opposed to the use of face masks during this pandemic claim that coverings impair the cardiopulmonary system, making it harder to breathe. Opponents of face masks add they increase dyspnea, a shortness of breath especially during exercise. According to these latest findings, while wearing a mask during a workout may lead to an increase in perceived dyspnea, there is very little scientific evidence indicating masks significantly harm lung function.

“There might be a perceived greater effort with activity, but the effects of wearing a mask on the work of breathing, on gases like oxygen and CO2 in blood or other physiological parameters are small, often too small to be detected,” says study first author and professor of medicine and radiology Susan Hopkins in a university release.

“There’s also no evidence to support any differences by sex or age in physiological responses to exercise while wearing a facemask.”

Are face masks harmful during exercise for those with health issues?

Researchers do note that people with severe cardiopulmonary disease may want to avoid wearing masks during exercise sessions.

“In such cases, these individuals might feel too uncomfortable to exercise, and that should be discussed with their doctor,” Hopkins explains. “However, the fact that these individuals are at great risk should they contract COVID-19 must also be considered.”

Researchers examined all available prior research focusing on the effect of face masks on both physiological and perceptual responses to exercise. All of that data covered a variety of relevant factors, including “work of breathing” (energy spent on every inhale and exhale), arterial blood gases, effects on muscle blood flow and fatigue, cardiac functioning, and blood flow to the brain.

In conclusion, study authors say that a healthy person should have no problem wearing any type of face mask during both low and high intensity workouts.

“Wearing a face mask can be uncomfortable. There can be tiny increases in breathing resistance. You may re-inhale warmer, slightly enriched CO2 air. And if you’re exercising, the mask can cause your face to become hot and sweaty,” Hopkins says.

“But these are sensory perceptions. They do not impact cardiopulmonary function in healthy people. So while dyspnea might be increased with a mask, you have to weigh that against the reduced risk of contracting COVID-19, knowing that the physiology is essentially unchanged.”

The study is published in Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

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