Lead Photo Courtesy of Under Armour

The novel coronavirus has been subject to a lot of debate, with wearing face masks during exercise among the most recent causes for controversy. And with a lot of conflicting evidence and opinions out there, it’s no wonder many of us are confused on the matter. 

For starters, the World Health Organization states that wearing medical masks does not cause CO2 intoxication or oxygen deficiency, a fear for many as gyms open across North America. Yet the WHO website currently does not recommend wearing a mask during exercise, warning against bacteria and breathing problems due to excess moisture. “Sweat can make the mask become wet more quickly, which makes it difficult to breathe and promotes the growth of microorganisms,” says who.int. Instead, WHO suggests the better COVID-19 preventive measure is to keep physical distance of at least one meter while exercising. 

So for many it comes down to personal preference and comfort, with some fitness buffs choosing to don a face cover during their workouts, especially when lifting at the gym or taking a class. Hoping to reassure the public that masks are safe while exercising, UK ICU doctor Tom Lawton ran 35 kilometers outside while wearing a mask. He then used a pulse oximeter to measure his oxygen levels and found they remained “normal” throughout his run, meaning 95-100 percent. According to the Mayo Clinic, anything under 90 percent is considered low. 

Oxygen levels aside, Lawton admits the mask was uncomfortable to run in, especially once damp from sweat. “The mask can make you feel short of breath, but this is largely due to anxiety,” says Lawton, who compares exercising in a mask to the breathing patterns of snorkeling.  “Your body will do what is necessary to keep your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels well controlled, and this can result in a different breathing pattern than normal,” says Lawton. “But it is not dangerous.” 

Dr. LaMar Hasbrouck, physician and former CDC Disease Detective echoes Lawton’s assurance. “In most instances, it is probably safe to wear masks while exercising,” he says, adding that it really depends on the type of workout. “Modifications may be necessary depending on the type of exercise and how rigorous the activity.” Hasbrouck notes that wearing a face mask during anaerobic exercises such as weightlifting, yoga, and Pilates may pose little risk, while aerobic exercises such as spinning and running may be more of a burden. 

With recent lab closures due to COVID-19, experts say a lot more research still needs to be done before a definite conclusion on the safety of wearing masks during exercise can be drawn. Until then, work out in the open air when you can, and always practice social distancing. “Outdoors is clearly going to be the best place to exercise for some time,” says Dr. Lawton. 

DC resident Nisha Patel (@fitandfamished) says she would wear a mask while working out regardless of whether it was required by the gym. She said while it took some time to get used to breathing in a mask, especially during the hotter months, it was worth it to help keep everyone safe. "The gym is a place where people go to become healthier and I take pride in doing my part to protect the health of those around me. Plus, wearing a mask has forced me to be more mindful of my breath while exercising and has actually had a positive impact on my overall fitness," she says. Her favorite brands are Adidas and Reebok.

If you wear a mask, follow these Do’s and Don’t’s

  1. Do not reuse masks designed for single use.
  2. Do sanitize your hands prior to removing your mask.
  3. Do not wear your mask on your neck or on your forehead.
  4. Do store your mask in a clear plastic bag.
  5. Do not have a false sense of security. Be sure to physically distance whenever possible.

The Best Masks for Working Out

When choosing a mask with exercise in mind, you want to look for fabrics that are breathable and sweat-wicking. A good rule of thumb: Look for the same qualities as you look for in a good sports bra.

“This is a case where one size does not fit all,” says Hasbrouck. “I believe that ultimately the best mask to wear while exercising is the one that fits well (so you don't need to keep touching and readjusting it, increasing risk of contamination), has good airflow (either based on the fabric type, design, or a valve), and is comfortable (not binding or pinching).”

“It’s important to wear a mask that has breathability, but also acts as a barrier to droplets and has some ability to filter the air passing through,” says Dr. Susy Hota, UHN's Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control. 

Here are our top five mask picks for exercising:

1. Reebok Face Covers

Available in two sizes, Reebok’s Face Covers 3-Pack is soft and breathable. Made for practicing healthy habits daily, these reusable masks are machine washable and feature two layers of fabric. With 449 product reviews from customers, these masks are sitting at 4.5 out of 5 stars. reebok.com; 3 for $30

2. Buff Azir Multi Filter Mask

The Buff Azir Multi comes with five BUFF® Replacement Filters that block 98% of airborne particulates. The 4-way ultrastretch fabric has UPF 50+ sun protection and back-of-head adjustable elastic bands eliminate unnecessary discomfort behind the ears. buffer.com; $29 

3. Under Armour SPORTSMASK

Designed to be worn for long periods of time and while playing sports, the UA SPORTSMASK uses UA Iso-Chill fabric on the inside and ear loops for maximum comfort. The strategically structured mask sits off the face for added breathability. underarmour.com; $30

4. CARBON38 Mask Kit 

The CARBON38 Mask Kit comes with two masks made of fast-drying, antibacterial fabric, and a laundry bag to ensure wear longevity. The multi-layered filtering system along with the adjustable nose piece and ear straps ensure maximum protection. carbon38.com; $29 

5. ATHLETA Everyday Non Medical Masks

While not a medical-grade mask, the rave reviews (3688 reviews averaging 4.6 out of 5 stars) for the ATHLETA Everyday Non-Medical Masks 5 Pack makes this option a no-brainer. The packs come with five different colored 3-layer breathable masks with adjustable ear straps. ATHLETA is also donating 100,000 masks to a major healthcare organization in support of heroes on the front line. athleta.gap.com; $30 

Disclaimer: The information in this article is not meant to be a substitute nor to delay seeking professional medical advice from your physician.

Mikaila Kukurudza
Mikaila is a Toronto-based writer, photographer, and fitness enthusiast. Follow her at @mikailakukurudza