Exercising With a Face Mask on Can Be Dangerous, Experiment Shows

Make sure you get enough oxygen and stay safe.
Derya Ozdemir

Anyone who has worn a face mask probably knows how uncomfortable they can be from time to time, especially during those hot days of summer. Wearing one, according to numerous studies, is crucially important to halt the spread of the COVID-19, which is why they've become a valuable asset in our lives. However, since they are a relatively new addition, some questions about them need to be answered such as whether if it could be dangerous to exercise with a face mask on.

Dr. Lindsay Bottoms, a Reader in Exercise and Health Physiology at the University of Hertfordshire, experimented with a face mask and gas analyzer to get to the bottom of this issue. 


Surgical masks can increase the resistance to airflow

Exercising means you'll be breathing faster and harder than usual, and wearing a face mask can increase the resistance to airflow, which means that you'll be needing even more oxygen and breathe harder and place a further strain on airflow. 

With low to moderate-intensity exercises, the effort might not be that different; however, the real challenge happens with heavy exercises, such as rugby or football, that require you to take in air at rates of about 40-100 liters per minute. 

She ran on a treadmill with fencing kit and face mask on

Bottoms ran an experiment on herself by running on a treadmill at 10kph for three minutes to attain the conditions of fencing. She had her full fencing kit on and tried with and without a face mask under the fencing mask. To do the science, she had a portable gas analyzer that could measure the concentration of gases being breathed in and out.

With the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere being around 21% at sea level, wearing only the fencing mask proved to be around 19.5%. However, when she wore a face mask, the oxygen level reduced to around 17%.

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Bottoms stated, "Any further decreases in oxygen concentration – by exercising longer or harder – would have a large effect on the physiological responses to exercise, causing altitude-sickness symptoms such as dizziness or headache."

Carbon dioxide levels increased

Moreover, Bottoms also pointed out that carbon dioxide levels in atmospheric air remained below 1% while wearing only the fencing mask. The face mask increased it to 3%. This is especially important since the U.K. Health and Safety Executive advise that employees should not be exposed to 1.5% carbon dioxide for more than 15 minutes.

Her experiment tells us a lot about how exercising with a mask can be like during intense training, and as life is going back to a new normal and gyms and parks open, more research should be done to ensure everyone stays safe. In the meantime, it may be a good idea to stick with exercising at home, especially for those with underlying respiratory conditions.

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