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Protective masks found to be safe for both moderate and heavy exercise

Evidence shows wearing a mask during exercise does not affect cardiopulmonary function.
U of A-led research shows that masks don't inhibit lung function during a workout. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

A review of evidence by Canadian and U.S.-based researchers shows that for most people, using face masks during moderate to heavy exercise does not affect lung function.

The review, published in Annals of the American Thoracic Society, examined the effects of various face masks and respirators on the respiratory system during physical activity. The researchers found the feeling of shortness of breath may be increased, but the actual physiological effects of face masks (measured through changes to gases in the blood such as oxygen and CO2) during physical activity were very small—often too small to be detected—even during heavy exercise.

“For moderate exercise for the average person, there is no evidence that it impacts performance. The lungs can handle whatever increased resistance is there with the face mask,” said senior review author Michael Stickland.

According to Stickland, masks warm the face, triggering a sensory perception that likely contributes to the feeling of breathlessness. The feeling is not reflected in the body’s physical response, though.

The researchers examined evidence for a wide variety of face masks, including cloth coverings, surgical masks, N95 respirators and industrial respirators. According to Stickland, the team even examined the impact of self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, used by firefighters in a smoky environment.

“It's a device that [functionally] increases the work of breathing,” said Stickland. “SCBA has four to five times greater resistance than what would be experienced with a surgical face mask, and it was still found to have only a marginal impact on lung function during exercise.”

Findings were also consistent when looking for differences based on sex or age. The one exception may be those who have severe cardiopulmonary disease. In those cases, patients may want to discuss available options with their physician.

“We hope this will help reduce the misinformation often found on social media around face masks,” said Stickland. “Many of us would like to exercise again. Some people have suggested you shouldn't wear a mask because of a theoretical impairment that might occur, but our data suggests that’s not the case.

Article courtesy of University of Alberta folio

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