How to Safely and Effectively Work Out in a Face Mask, Straight From Doctors and Trainers

Caitlin Flynn
Rearview shot of a sporty young woman stretching her arms while exercising outdoors
Rearview shot of a sporty young woman stretching her arms while exercising outdoors

With the weather getting warmer and gyms reopening in many parts of the country, you may understandably be anxious to get back to your workout routine. Of course, like everything else, exercising during COVID-19 is different than what we're accustomed to. Experts recommend wearing a face mask while exercising if you're at a gym or on an outdoor path where you may encounter other bikers and joggers, and it's an adjustment, to say the least. POPSUGAR spoke with doctors and trainers to learn how you can get in those miles and reps without sacrificing your safety.

1. Consult a Doctor If You Have Any Underlying Conditions

Tista Ghosh, MD, senior medical director and epidemiologist for Grand Rounds, told POPSUGAR that for most people it is safe to exercise while wearing a face mask - and it's part of your responsibility to keep your community safe and prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, if you have underlying medical issues, like cardiovascular or respiratory conditions, Dr. Ghosh recommends consulting your primary care doctor about "the safest way to work out and how to best wear a mask when doing so."

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2. Use a Lightweight Mask

Dr. Ghosh cautioned against using N95 or surgical masks to work out. She noted that these masks could make your workout much more difficult and should be saved for medical use. "Instead, look for lightweight, cloth masks that fit snugly but comfortably against the side of your face. Leaks or gaps can reduce a mask's effectiveness," Dr. Ghosh said. "Cloth masks can be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to the shape, which is important. You should never exercise in a dirty mask."

Many small businesses and sports brands are now selling face masks that are specifically designed for running - they're more breathable but still provide protection. Dr. Ghosh recommends using one of these masks if possible. "The tolerability of a mask is often impacted by breathability, heat buildup inside the mask, skin irritation from rough materials, and difficulties in talking," she explained. Dr. Ghosh suggests wearing the face mask at home and jogging in place or trying some jumping jacks to test out how comfortable it is before you head to the gym or hit the trails.

3. Take It Slow and Listen to Your Body

Reuben Elovitz, MD, internist and CEO at Private Health Dallas, stressed the importance of starting at a slow pace. Your body isn't accustomed to working out with a facial covering, which can restrict how much oxygen you're getting, and it may take time for you to get comfortable exercising this way. "Some people are going to have some degree of feeling that you were overexerting yourself," Dr. Elovitz told POPSUGAR. "Once you feel like you're pushing yourself too hard, then you need to take a few minutes and then reset at a lower intensity."

Dr. Ghosh added that you should "pay attention to any dizziness, lightheadedness, or shortness of breath." If you experience any of these symptoms, take a break from the workout until you've fully recovered. If they're a frequent occurrence, it's best to stick to exercises like yoga, Pilates, or lower-intensity workouts.

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4. Set Reasonable Expectations

"Be kind [to yourself]," said Stephanie Abrams, an NASM-certified personal trainer based in Los Angeles. Don't be discouraged if you jump in and find that you're not training at the same level as you were before. Abrams noted that, in addition to wearing a mask and going a while without access to gym equipment, "your body, mind, and heart are going through a lot more stressors."

Kelly Bryant, an NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Kelly Bryant Wellness, recommends erring on the side of caution and trading really intense workouts for light- to moderate-intensity forms of exercise. She also suggests using mechanisms other than heart rate to measure intensity. "Heart rate metrics will be inaccurate because something is covering our mouths, making it more difficult to breathe," she explained. Instead, Bryant's suggests using the "talk test." While doing moderate-intensity exercise, you should be able to speak but struggle to get out full sentences. During lighter workouts, your ability to speak shouldn't be hindered at all.

"Prioritize safety rather than the perfect workout regimen, especially as we're just starting to return to public gyms," Bryant said. If you can't wait to take your mask off once your workout is complete, make sure you're outdoors before you do so.

5. Take Frequent Breaks

"I can't stress this enough," said Abrams, emphasizing that now is not the time to focus on personal records or reach for heavier weights. "Check in with what your body needs," she advised. "Use this as an opportunity to listen and get to know yourself better."

And if you're frustrated by the limitations of training with a mask, Abrams recommends reminding yourself of the bigger picture. You're helping yourself and others by doing your part to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Plus, she says there's a silver lining to these adjusted workouts: "It's like training at altitude. [It's] tough, but you can do it."

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