“You Mean I Can Take My Mask Off?”

The ins and outs of exercise and wearing face masks

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Getty images / Yahoo! Sports

It is common knowledge that due to the coronavirus pandemic, wearing a mask has been deemed a necessary precaution to try and maintain public safety. However, what is not well-known is whether or not people should be wearing a mask when they exercise in public. Whether an athlete is going to a public gym to work out, or if a high school football player is going to practice, there is the unanswered question, “Can I take my mask off when I am exercising?” The short answer is, yes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “people should not wear masks while exercising.” The ‘why’ to this answer is not quite so simple. 

A personal trainer, Alyse Mueller, describes the functions of oxygen in the body and how they are hindered by a face covering. To start off simply, when we exercise, our heart rate increases and our body needs oxygen. Now, oxygen has numerous functions in the body, many of which are essential during exercise. Oxygen is a necessary component in making ATP, a chemical the muscles produce when they need more energy, therefore, it can be expected that our muscles will make an abundance of ATP during exercise. The more ATP that is produced, the more oxygen intake the body needs. 

Then, oxygen travels to the rest of our body through the bloodstream. It dissolves into plasma and attaches to hemoglobin molecules. A portion of the oxygen we breathe in is also stored in the bloodstream to be part of the body’s oxygen reserves. When the body is at rest, only 20-25% of the oxygen is given up to the blood tissues; the rest is conserved. During exercise, our body uses up the reserves, so oxygen-hemoglobin saturation in the blood drops sharply. Now, the body needs more oxygen, “but if you are working out with a mask on, it is going to be harder to restore oxygen faster,” Mueller describes. 

While this process may be confusing, it is important in understanding why wearing a mask while exercising is discouraged. Essentially, our body needs to replenish its oxygen supply at a much faster rate when exercising than when it is at rest. If a mask is restricting the airflow and oxygen intake, the body is going to suffer. The WHO states that wearing a mask while physically exerting yourself and sweating “can make the mask wet which promotes the growth of microorganisms.” They further outline that the most important safety measure is staying socially distanced from others.

Not only does science provide evidence that wearing a mask while exercising is not healthy, the Jordan School District guidelines also support this argument. “Any student who prefers to wear a face-covering during an event should be allowed to do so,” however, while they are playing the game, it will not be required, especially when social distancing can be upheld. The guidelines clarify further, “face coverings must continue to be used when not engaging in vigorous activity, such as sitting on the bench during a contest, locker rooms, and athletic training rooms.” Simply, activities such as walking to practice, stretching before a performance, or cooling down after a workout do not merit the absence of a face mask. 

The lack of appropriate mask-usage has started to present itself as a problem, especially within high school sports teams. Students at Herriman High School describe how they see people walking around at the school without a mask covering their nose, and how some students aren’t even wearing them at all. This is a growing problem among the high school’s sports teams as well. While it is acceptable to take off the mask while you are actively engaging in practice, this allowance does not apply to people walking around the school taking a break or walking to practice. Herriman senior, Sariah Gray, explains how members of sports teams are seen “[N]ot wearing masks to their practices or when they’re coming back from them either.” She elaborates, “even though you’re ‘at practice’, the mask doesn’t need to come off until you’re actually exercising.”

Now, some people might think that once they are outside, removing their mask is safe. This is true when social distance can be actively maintained, however, in most public settings, such as outside of a high school, social distancing can’t be and isn’t followed. The CDC recommends “that people wear masks in public settings especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” This also applies to any outdoor sports team. Even if you are outside getting ready to practice, masks should be worn.

In reality, wearing a mask is quite simple. It is just a piece of cloth covering your mouth and nose. People are required to wear them so they can keep other people safe, and to slow the spread of Covid-19. Making the choice to not wear the mask correctly or to not wear it at all is a decision that has the potential to put countless people in danger. It can be difficult to express how important this small safety measure is, but it can affect people in so many ways that you would never know. If you have a question about whether or not to wear your mask, chances are, wearing the mask is the safest option, not only for you, but for the people around you.