Italian study finds strenuous exercise in a mask is safe

Cyclists tested during intense bouts of exercise in three different masks to check impact on performance

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - MARCH 05: Brazilian pole vault athlete Augusto Dutra and Ayla Sakamoto exercise during a training session at  Esporte Clube Pinheiros on March 05, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Augusto is already qualified and Ayla close to qualifying to participate in the Tokyo Olympics (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
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Wearing a face mask during intense exercise has been declared safe in healthy people, according to a new study.

The research involved a live test to look at the performance of 12 people on a static exercise bike, monitored by cardiologists at the University of Milan.

Scientists and doctors tested the volunteers' breathing and heart rates during intense periods of cycling and found no adverse health effects from wearing a face mask.

The results have been published in the European Respiratory Journal, and suggest wearing masks during gym workouts could prevent the spread of Covid-19 without impairing someone's health.

This finding could have practical implications in daily life, for example potentially making it safer to open indoor gyms

"We know that the main route of transmission for coronavirus is via droplets in the breath and it's possible that breathing harder during exercise could facilitate transmission, especially indoors,” said Dr Elisabetta Salvioni from Centro Cardiologico Monzino, Milan, who led the study.

“Research suggests that wearing a mask may help prevent the spread of the disease, but there is no clear evidence on whether masks are safe to wear during vigorous exercise."

Researchers evaluated the performance of six men and six women who completed three bouts of strenuous exercise; one without a mask, a second while wearing a disposable mask and a third trial wearing a re-usable mask with a filter.

Test results showed wearing a mask impacted performance by an average of 10 per cent, a result deduced by measuring the cyclist’s VO2 max – or their highest oxygen uptake during intense exercise.

The study concluded the drop-off was a result of masks making it slightly harder to breathe, but was not detrimental to a level doctors considered unsafe.

"This reduction is modest and, crucially, it does not suggest a risk to healthy people doing exercise in a face mask, even when they are working to their highest capacity,” said Dr Massimo Mapelli, who took part in the testing.

“While we wait for more people to be vaccinated against Covid-19, this finding could have practical implications in daily life, for example potentially making it safer to open indoor gyms.”

Doctors in the UAE previously warned against using face masks while exercising to avoid the risk of people re-breathing exhaled carbon dioxide in the ‘dead space’ of a mask.

Rules on wearing masks during a workout vary across the country. While it is acceptable to remove a mask during exercise in Dubai, that is not the case in Abu Dhabi, where those not wearing a face-covering anywhere in a public place risk being fined.