What It’s Like to Work Out in a Mask

I will be the first to admit, I did not want quarantine to end, but when I heard my local community gym was reopening their doors for the first time in almost four months, I was absolutely ecstatic. That is, until I found out the City of Chicago was requiring gym goers to wear masks while working out.

exercising in a mask

I’m sorry, what?! I can barely catch my breath after an intense workout on the best of days let alone with a mask plastered across my face.

As hesitant as I was to be going back to the gym in general and now having to wear a mask for the entire class, I missed the cardio machines, heavy weights and overall energy of the in studio experience far too much to not try it. How would I ever know if I could or couldn’t work out in a mask unless I actually tried it?

Working out in a mask

When I first arrived at class, I got myself ready to workout… in a mask. The first nine minutes of class required movements using body weight and a set of dumbbells at our own, socially distanced, space. As if adjusting to lifting heavy weights after four months of at-home workouts wasn’t challenging enough, let’s also figure out how to workout while wearing a mask. As I began to workout, I thought to myself, “Okay, this isn’t so bad, I can totally do this.” I spoke too soon…

The next station was a nine minute cardio set, which can humble even the strongest of gym goers on their best days, but I had just crushed station one, so how hard could station two be? After the first 45 second sprint I was feeling pretty good. I was back in the gym, I was actively taking steps to reach my goals and I was actually working out again… in a mask nonetheless!

Those sentiments were short lived once the second set of sprints rolled around and were a far distant memory by the third round Needless to say, by the end of the nine minutes, every single cell of my body was gasping, no begging, for oxygen and instead of obediently listening, I was inhaling a mouthful of my cloth mask. “I am going to die.” I thought to myself. “What on earth was I thinking working out in a mask?”

As I ventured back to my individual station to finish out the third and fourth stations, my heart rate decreased and my breathing (I mean, gasping for air) finally returned to a normal rate so that I was no longer concerned I was going to pass out from lack of oxygen. I finished out class and sprinted outside into the fresh air where I promptly ripped off my mask and gulped in a breath of fresh air like a camel who had just found water in the desert.

Walking home, I thought back to class and realized how challenging it was, but simultaneously how good I felt and that working out in a mask actually made me feel like a total badass. A badass begging for air at times, but a badass nonetheless.

Are there health benefits to working out in a mask?

It got me wondering… are there any benefits to working out in a mask? Will I develop some super human strength from working out in a mask? Are there any health risks associated with working out in a mask? With so many questions swirling around in my mind, I consulted with some respiratory experts and here’s what they had to say about working out in a mask.

Dr. Giuseppe Aragona, General Practitioner & Family Doctor at Prescription Doctor, weighs in on working out in a mask and explains, “People who work out in a mask tend to need to take in more oxygen because the mask restricts the airflow in order to make sure very little of the outside gets breathed in. This can work well for short and restricted exercises, such as a 15 minute run, but I would not suggest doing this all the time, or alone. If you [work out in a mask] too much, you may start to run out of oxygen, and you could faint. If alone, this could be very dangerous, especially when using equipment. I would also suggest you only do this a few times a week, not everyday.”

Okay, so not exactly what I was hoping to hear (you mean I’m not going to turn into Wonder Woman!?), but this all makes sense. Shorter bursts of activity are more suitable for wearing a mask, but other forms of exercise, like high intensity workouts and long runs, may not be as conducive.

Dr. Louis J. Ignarro, Nobel Prize Winning Scientist, Discoverer of Nitric Oxide, Ph.D in Pharmacology goes on to explain, “There are no obvious health concerns or risks in working out while wearing a face mask. Some people claim that masks cause a build-up of CO2 inside the mask. This is merely a claim, which has no scientific basis. There is no evidence whatsoever that wearing a mask causes a build-up of CO2. Just ask the millions of surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and other medical staff who wear masks every day for many consecutive hours in the OR or ICU.”

Tips for working out in a mask

If you are like me and can deal with some minor dizziness for the sake of getting back in the gym to have some level of normalcy in your life again, consider these tips from the New York Times:

  • Avoid paper or surgical masks as they rapidly become wet when we breathe into them vigorously; they then lose their ability to block outgoing germs.
  • Cotton cloth masks also dampen easily, so instead, choose a cloth mask made from breathable, synthetic materials to lessen moisture buildup.
  • Breathable masks with two layers of fabric or less are best to avoid facial overheating and any bunching that may constrict breathing.

Unsure where to begin shopping for the perfect mask to workout in? We did the work for you. Check out some of the best face masks for running.

Although working out in a mask may be uncomfortable at times, wearing a mask while working out is a must for now. Before you hit the gym to regain some of that muscle strength you lost during quarantine, consider these tips before choosing your mask of choice. Now, who’s ready to work out in a mask?!

Please follow your local guidelines for working out safely, whether indoors or outdoors, and guidance on best mask-wearing practices while working out.

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About Ashley Martens

Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a lifelong passion for all things health and wellness, Ashley enjoys writing about topics to help people live happier and healthier lives. With a foundation in fitness, food, and nutrition, Ashley covers it all including sexual health and travel topics.