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How to make the most out of your Orangetheory workout while wearing a mask

By Leslie Barker

Living during a pandemic seems to be a series of tightrope balances. To keep from toppling into the COVID-19 abyss of fear and uncertainty, we have to focus on each step, carefully putting one foot in front of the other.

We do it by (recite with us now) social distancing, staying home as much as possible, washing our hands, keeping group size to a minimum. And, of course, wearing a mask.

That’s all well and good when it comes to grocery shopping or looking for books at the library or standing six feet apart from other patrons in line at the post office. But what about exercising?

As Orangetheory Fitness studios have begun opening, we’re following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines by requiring all staff members to wear masks. In states where masks are mandated, OTF studios mandate them as well. In non-mandated states, we encourage members to wear masks.

Yes, we know masks during workouts can be distracting. They cause harder breathing and elevated heart rates -- goals for a class in general, yes, but masks can exacerbate those physiological responses. Thus, many people tend to focus on that discomfort rather than the workouts. And the whole point of our classes is to reduce -- not induce -- stress.

But balance those negatives with the benefit of masks -- namely, reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 to about 3 percent -- and, well, it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

Still, questions abound about wearing them -- in general, and specifically while working out. And where there are questions, there are answers. So here we go.

 

Why should I wear a mask if I’m not sick?

Wearing a mask is an act of altruism. We’re all in this together, so we all need to look out for each other.

“We’re protecting others from infection, as the mask physically blocks droplets which can carry the virus from escaping and reaching others,” says Dr. Shannon Odell, a neuroscientist on the medical advisory board of Orangetheory.

Many people who are carriers of the virus are asymptomatic; in other words, you could be spreading it all the while feeling fine.

Pulmonary hypertension specialist Dr. Sonja Bartolome of UT Southwestern Medical Center writes that between April 17 and May 9, 66,000 cases of COVID-19 in New York were averted between April 17 and May 9 because of strict adherence to mask wearing.

Dr. Rachelle Reed, OTF’s director of fitness science, meticulously gathered and summarized research about the efficacy of wearing masks in general and specifically during exercise. First though, she stresses that much about COVID-19 remains unknown and that information changes daily.

What is definitive is that the CDC has consistently recommended the use of cloth face coverings to help prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus. Multiple research studies overwhelmingly back this up, she writes.

And while most research has focused primarily on mask wearing in general to fight transmission, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) is funding a study which, when pandemic restrictions allow, will be led by exercise science professor Len Kravitz of the University of New Mexico.

Meanwhile, ACE recommends doing vigorous exercise outdoors to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. When that’s not possible, wearing cloth face coverings “is most important when physical distancing is difficult and when exercise type and intensity allow.”

When does that often happen? During group workouts.

“The bottom line,” Dr. Odell says, “is that in a group setting, wearing a mask in addition to social distancing is the best way to keep both yourself and others around you safe. Wearing a mask is not ideal, but we are in a less than ideal situation right now.”

But this mask makes my heart beat faster when I work out, and that makes me nervous.

True, exercising in a mask is quite different from exercising without one. With that in mind though, being aware of how you might feel and how your body might respond just might help you better handle the effects.

In her research, Dr. Reed cites information from Dr. Cedric X. Bryant, ACE’s president and chief science officer. He estimates a relative increase in heart rate of about eight to 10 beats per minute during a workout, most notably during such high-intensity workouts as intervals or hill repeats.

A blog post in The British Journal of Sports Medicine acknowledges that wearing a mask during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort.”

And Dr. Kravitz of the University of New Mexico notes that some people wearing masks may feel a little lightheaded during workouts.

By design, Dr. Odell says, “a mask that is working well is going to feel a bit humid and hot inside, which is especially true if you are exercising in it. This hot humid feeling inside a mask, paired with some increased breathing resistance may signal to the brain, ‘Oh no I am in trouble!’ ”

For people who experience anxiety, such sweating and shortness of breath can mimic symptoms of panic attacks, she says. You may feel like you can’t breathe; that feeling, in turn, may trigger the fight-or-flight response in the brain. But you’re OK, Dr. Odell says. Really.

Still, “while we may know consciously that we are not in any real danger, that masks allow for healthy individuals to breathe in enough oxygen, and that carbon dioxide flows readily out of mask pores, our bodies and brains can be tricked by the sensation alone,” she says.

 

Which leads to this question:

What can I do to make this transition as smooth as possible?

Start short. Start sweet. Start at home. Dr. Reed suggests putting a mask on for a walk around the block. Then you might try one of OTF’s At-Home workouts wearing one, just to see how your heart responds.

“Remember that acclimating to mask-wearing takes time,” she says. “Give yourself some grace and just keep showing up!”

Focus on mind over matter. Dr. Reed says by the time she’s finished her warmup, she’s more focused on adjusting her intensity based on what her coach is calling out.

“My anxiety about the mask fades into the background,” she says. “The first time I wore a mask in an OTF class, I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be.’ ”

Take your time. “The good news is that many experts suggest with time and practice, we can retrain our brains to understand we are not in danger, that we are in fact keeping those around us safer by wearing a mask,” Dr. Odell says. “That said, it is important to listen to your body when wearing a mask as we may have new limits to your exercise intensity as our bodies get used to wearing them.”

If you feel lightheaded or dizzy while working out, stop. Ease into your workout; remember that your heart rate will jump faster during class than it normally does.

Get your doctor’s OK. If you have such pre-existing respiratory issues as COPD, asthma, chronic bronchitis or any other lung disorder, ACE recommends checking with a medical professional before working out in a mask. Face shields might be a better option.

Try different masks. Just like the clothes you choose to wear for a workout, masks are all about personal preference and proper fit. Companies such as Under Armour, Zensah and Koral make masks specifically designed for working out. Cotton masks will absorb sweat and probably be more uncomfortable than those made with wicking fabric. If you’re working out for more than 30 minutes, be sure to change masks.

CDC, Reed learned in her research, notes that a mask should fit snugly against the sides of your face and cover your nose and mouth.

Keep washing your hands and maintaining 6-foot distance. “Just a final thought,” Dr. Odell says. “While we can’t high-five right now, I like to think of the head-nod from six feet away while wearing a mask, like the ultimate high five. It signals, ‘Hey, I care about your health, and I care about my health, and we are all in this together.’

“Wearing a mask is a great way to show support and love for your community, and we know our brains love community, so think of it as an added bonus.”

 

About the Author
Leslie Barker has written about and lived her passion – health and fitness – for decades, most recently as senior writer for The Dallas Morning News. Her essays, tips and ways to find joy in even the simplest of circumstances have inspired couch potatoes to start moving as well as more experienced exercisers to keep moving.