When living in a polluted environment or exercising during short-term threats such as the haze or viral epidemics like COVID-19, many athletes and exercise hobbyists wonder how wearing a mask will impact their exercise regimen and just how much protection is offered from a surgical mask. In fact, will wearing a mask do more harm than good?
It is now mandatory for all in Singapore to wear a mask when out of home, except for kids below the age of 2 and those engaging in strenuous exercises. Wearing of masks is an important precaution, especially for persons infected with COVID-19 and not showing any symptoms. "By wearing a mask – even a cloth mask – these pre- or asymptomatic persons may be a little less likely to spread the virus to others," says Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, Programme Leader of Infectious Diseases and Co-Director of Global Health at the National University of Singapore's Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.
The evidence for the efficacy of surgical or fabric masks is limited but experts are saying that masks might help keep people who are infected, especially those with COVID-19, from unknowingly passing along the virus.
Matt Ferrari Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science, and a researcher with the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University said that face coverings do two possible things. They contain spread from the ill and prevent inhalation in the healthy. The degree, however to which they achieve these things is debated, but one thing is not. Masks are only effective if used properly.
When wearing a mask, make sure that it fits snugly around your mouth and nose. Avoid touching it as you could transfer germs from your hands to the mask. If there are virus particles trapped on the outside of the mask, they could end up on your hands when you touch it, allowing transmission to the other parts of your body such as your eyes. Be sure to wash your cloth mask before wearing it again and throw away disposable masks after the first wear.
According to Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious disease expert at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, the answer is yes, exercising with a mask could harm your health.
"When you put on a mask, there is resistance in breathing, making the exercise more strenuous and it can trigger a heart attack," advises Dr Leong. Instead of wearing a mask, it is much more effective to protect yourself by keeping a distance of 10 metres from other people.
Regular exercise helps you to maintain your immunity. If your immunity decreases through lack of exercise, you'll be more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses, so do maintain your exercise routine during times of poor air quality and viral epidemics.
But avoid working out in crowded areas. Either go somewhere close to home during a quieter time, or work out in the safety of your own home.
However, if you feel more comfortable exercising with a mask on, by all means do so. Choose a moisture-wicking face covering, which may help cut down on droplets being spread to others because of your heavy breathing, coughing, or sneezing.
Should you have difficulty breathing at any time, stop exercising immediately and seek medical attention from the nearest Accident & Emergency (A&E) department.