Whether you want to hit the gym or just stroll around the park, your masks for exercise should perform at a different level than your everyday masks. They need to hold up while you breathe and sweat more than usual, block coronavirus particles from reaching you, and keep you from transmitting the virus to others. On top of it all, they need to be easy to breathe through and stay put as you walk, jog, or jump. We’ll analyze how cloth, N95, and surgical masks fare during exercise and discuss what you should look for when you’re choosing a workout mask.
How Do Typical Masks Hold Up as Workout Masks?
There are plenty of standard mask options on the market right now, but not all of them work for exercise. As most of us know by now, the CDC and related organizations recommend that the average citizen wears cloth masks in public or when they’re near a group of people. However, they’re not the best or most comfortable options for exercise because they’re created for daily life, not working out. A standard cloth mask can slip after just a few seconds of exercise and don’t come with features like sturdy head straps or adjustable nose clips to help them stay in place. Breathability is one of the most important attributes of an exercise mask, and cotton cloth masks can feel like they’re smothering you. It’s also easy for them to become staticky and odorous as you move and sweat. Cloth masks dampen quickly when we breathe into them heavily and lose some of their ability to block out pathogens, as exercise professor Christa Janse van Rensburg told the New York Times. Your workout mask should be breathable, comfortable, and effective for vaporizing bacteria, and you shouldn’t have to make tradeoffs for any of those qualities.
What about N95 and surgical masks? Even though surgical masks seem to be everywhere and healthcare workers depend on N95s, they’re not effective during exercise. Experts like van Rensburg say to avoid surgical masks entirely for exercise because they rapidly become wet. Once wet, these masks are ineffective at filtering particles and will not keep you protected.
N95s, according to the CDC, have filtration mechanisms that depend on electrostatic attraction which can trap viral particles and bacteria of any size— like the coronavirus. When you exercise, you exhale more, causing moisture and dampness that reduces the filter’s performance.
Some N95s may have rubber valves for breathing, but these masks with valves can do much more harm than good in this pandemic. Since the air exhaled through the valve isn’t filtered, infected individuals can easily breathe coronavirus particles into the air and keep spreading it.
A newly published NCBI study also sheds light on the experience of exercising with masks. The research compares the effect of N95 and surgical masks on different groups during cardiopulmonary exercise (relating to the heart and lungs). Both masks had negative effects; the N95 masks reduced ventilation abilities by 23 percent and both types increased breathing resistance. Participants also reported how uncomfortable both types were relating to factors like humidity, heat, itchiness, fatigue, etc. The study concluded wearing medical masks while exercising impairs physical activities and the quality of the wearer’s life. The individuals in the study were all in good health, so the negative effects and discomfort will be amplified for those with health problems.
What You Should Look For
The best solution is to find a workout mask that’s specifically created for exercise. The right type of mask should be built to stay on your face no matter how strenuous the workout is, so look for features like strong head straps, adjustable nose strips, and Active Tape to ensure the mask stays put. You also don’t want the mask to feel heavy on your place, an ultra-lightweight fabric can give the proper support. It’s even better if the material is hypoallergenic so it doesn’t trigger irritation and allergic reactions for your skin.
Next, check the mask to assess how breathable it is and how it’s built to withstand sweat. Look for the words “moisture-wicking.” Fabrics that are moisture-wicking are made of high-tech polyester that resists water penetration. Not only will masks with moisture-wicking fabric reduce sweat and humidity around your face, but they also repel water and viral aerosol transmission when others sneeze or cough. Masks that have deodorizing and anti-static capabilities also create a more comfortable experience.
Before you buy your workout mask, evaluate its filtration capabilities. In addition to high-performance fabric, the masks should be able to separate viral pathogens from your general airflow. It doesn’t mean you need hoses like the kind gas masks have, but there are special materials and features that enable filtration. Polypropylene is a plastic-based material used in masks to block out harmful bacteria and pathogens. There are also small N95 filters that you can add to block ultrafine particles like smoke, ash, and chemical aerosols. If you choose to invest in these, make sure you choose ones that are NIOSH-approved.
However, in the coronavirus era, the best kind of exercise masks go beyond just filtering harmful pathogens. A high-quality mask will also destroy germs. If masks only filters, germs can still live on your mask for up to three days, putting yourself and others at risk. According to the NIH, elements like silver oxide and titanium dioxide have been proven to be antimicrobial agents that diminish destroy viral particles. When antimicrobial compounds are embedded into a mask’s fabric, they elevate the mask’s protective abilities by killing bacteria and inactivating viral particles. For credibility, check to see if the mask manufacturers have reported effective lab testing.
Some people may have reservations about wearing masks during exercise. “I look at masks as an opportunity to be a good citizen and show you care about the well-being others, even as you bolster your own well-being with a workout,” says Dr. Cedric Bryant, president of the American Council on Exercise. It’s challenging to find a workout mask that’s comfortable and kills viral pathogens at the same time—a truth that inspired us to develop the OURA Active Masks. Exercise helps you stay healthy in your mind and body, and you need masks that are specifically created to help you in your journey.