SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ per month. Save 90%
SUBSCRIBE NOW
99¢ per month. Save 90%

Should you wear a face mask to the gym? A look at the debate

Here’s a conundrum: The same thing that makes going to a fitness center safer from COVID-19 also makes the exercise experience decidedly worse.

As gyms open across the country, we need to talk about masks.

States including Florida, Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Arizona, Indiana and Ohio are welcoming gymgoers back. Many fitness studios and gym chains encourage patrons to wear masks while they work out.

The face coverings are among a slew of precautions – including temperature checks, smaller class sizes, sanitization stations and socially distanced machines – aimed at minimizing potential exposure of the novel coronavirus that's infected more than 2 million Americans.

Do people need to wear material that covers their nose and mouth when they want to breathe heavily? 

Staying Apart, Together: A newsletter about how to cope with the coronavirus pandemic

A member of 24 Hour Fitness gets ready to run in a mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a cloth mask (not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, which should be reserved for health care workers) "when social distancing is difficult" and when wearing one is "feasible." Gyms, which are beholden to different laws enacted to fight the coronavirus, typically make the choice of wearing a mask up to the individual exerciser.

Why working out indoors is more dangerous

Even before gyms started opening, masks were a divisive topic among runners, hikers and walkers during lockdown. Outdoor exercisers weren't as obligated to cover up, because aerosolized droplets that could carry coronavirus are “swept away a lot quicker than when you’re indoors,” said physician and former CDC medical officer LaMar Hasbrouck.

“We know that it’s safer outside,” where the chance of spreading disease is “much, much less,” he said.

Hiking during the coronavirus pandemic? Here's how to stay safe on the trails

Inside the doors of the gym, risk is elevated, and so is the debate over whether to wear a mask that could suction to the nose and mouth, as Victoria Williams' cloth covering did.

"I struggled to work out in a homemade mask," the pharmacist, who is used to wearing surgical masks on the job, said about returning to her routine at Orangetheory Fitness in Knoxville, Tennesee. "I would just try and be good about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth to forcefully push the mask back off of my face with that exhale." 

One Orangetheory studio required masks, until it didn't

When Orangetheory Fitness, the boutique gym that offers treadmill/weight/rower group workouts, posted photos of staffers in masks with a caption about “new safety policies that would make the CDC proud,” not all of their members were feeling pride. Though there was the occasional “Yay!” and “THANK YOU” reply, most commenters had a negative reaction to their coaches’ new accessories.

Comments ranged from “If we have to wear a mask I will be canceling my membership” to “I miss otf so much but that will cause more harm than good” and “It is ridiculously dangerous to require masks for people exerting themselves at that level.” 

Dr. Rachelle Reed, director of global fitness science at Orangetheory Fitness, said the franchise has the whole working-out-with-masks thing handled. Studios have coaches who are “encouraging members to listen to their bodies and track their physiological data to adjust intensity levels,” and heart rate monitors, a staple in OTF classes, would illustrate “any negative effects that (members could have) reflected in an elevated heart rate response.”

The Knoxville OTF location that Williams frequents made wearing masks a must when it reopened May 7, in compliance with local mandates. By May 25, those rules eased to requiring masks in only certain classes. On June 1, the studio made all classes "mask optional workouts," based on survey responses, it said on Instagram. That's the case for all OTF studio workouts across the country.

Classes at reopened Orangetheory studios are held at limited capacity to allow for social distancing. The classes are "mask optional."

"There's more of a demand now that masks are optional," Williams said. She decided to stop wearing a mask to the studio after class sizes got smaller and the space between exercisers increased. "It's really the extra distance that made me feel comfortable," she said.

Masks are typically 'encouraged' at the gym

Masks are encouraged – with gyms’ media materials typically featuring masked members in photos – at LA Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, Retro Fitness, Barry’s Bootcamp and Gold’s Gym.

Do people actually wear masks at those gyms? 

Yellow and black stickers remind Gold's Gym weightlifters to maintain a social distance.

“Some people do, some people don’t,” said Brett Detweiler of Austin, Texas, who just returned to his downtown Gold’s Gym. He doesn’t wear one but said he and the few other people he sees working out at Gold's are mindful of one another and “super intense” about wiping down equipment with cleaning solution.

Equinox, a luxury fitness club, asks that guests wear masks “except while vigorously training.” 

Is it safe to wear a mask while working out?

Hasbrouck recommends wearing a cloth mask to the gym if you stick to anaerobic exercises, such as weightlifting. "When they can be used they should be used," he said.

However, if you're running or spinning, wearing a mask "is not going to be practical," Hasbrouck said, predicting exercisers will remove them to breathe out of their noses. 

Sweat makes masks "less porous, which means harder for the air to exchange in either direction," he said. "You’re going to feel lightheaded, suffocated and maybe numb around the fingers."

In a word, masks are uncomfortable. As OTF member Williams found, they require the wearer to reduce the base pace much lower than before.

People wearing cloth masks are not at risk of toxic levels of carbon dioxide, Hasbrouck said. "Assuming they're not wearing a fitted N-95, that's not going to be an issue."

Stressed about working out without a mask? That’s valid, too

Seventy-five percent of Americans are not ready to return to reopened gyms, according to a Drive Research poll of 600 gymgoers. Masks or not, safety is a concern.

Barbara Gray, an investment researcher in Vancouver, used to take daily yoga classes at Equinox but has kept her membership frozen since March. She doesn’t plan to return before there’s a coronavirus vaccine. 

“I think I’d be too stressed to go back to it in a studio,” she said about the activity that she once considered a stress-reliever. “You’re not going to get rid of anxiety if you’re super anxious.”

A gym-goer at Life Time gets his temperature screened before working out.

How else can gymgoers stay safe?

Masks aside, gyms are taking other measures to reduce the potential spread of sickness. They're adding cleaning stations, rearranging equipment to be farther apart, limiting locker use and checking guests' temperatures with touch-free thermometers. Reminders about keeping machines clean and maintaining a social distance are all over the place.

According to Hasbrouck, “Limiting density at the gym is the most important thing, because we know that crowding and the duration of time that you’re in there are the two most important factors in terms of transmission.”