COVID-19 face mask study has good news for fitness enthusiasts

A new study out of Canada has found that healthy people who exercised while wearing a three-layer face mask didn't experience issues with blood or muscle oxygen levels. The study, which was recently published in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, addresses some of the controversy and claims related to wearing face masks.

There's an obvious concern about visiting gyms during the coronavirus pandemic — many people are often congregated into a relatively small space where they exhale forcibly over and over, expelling droplets in to the air. While visiting an indoor gym is still inadvisable in some regions, it's important to remain active during lockdowns and social distancing.

A new study from the University of Saskatchewan evaluated the potential effects of wearing a three-layer face mask while engaging in strenuous exercise, finding that the participants' performance wasn't impacted nor their blood and muscle oxygen levels.

The study was small, involving 14 participants described as physically healthy and active. The researchers controlled for factors like sleep, diet, and past physical activity that took place in the 24 hours prior to the study's start. The participants were tasked with a brief warmup session on a stationary bike.

The bike exercise steadily increased in intensity until the participants were no longer able to maintain the minimum pedal rate required by the researchers. This process was repeated three times, one with the participants wearing a cloth face mask, again while wearing a medical mask, and one time without a mask.

The study's co-author Phil Chilibeck explained:

If people wear face masks during indoor exercise, it might make the sessions safer and allow gyms to stay open during COVID. It might also allow sports to continue, including hockey, where transmission of COVID-19 appears to be high.

There are some limitations to the study, notably that it applies to healthy, physically active people and that the cloth mask used involved three layers. The researchers note that a face mask featuring only one layer could potentially change the results.