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Why it could be dangerous to exercise with a face mask on?

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

When playing sport, breathing is faster and harder than at rest, which increases the risk of passing the disease on. As a result, premier league football is considering introducing face masks. Others may follow suit.


Yet a mask makes it harder to inhale the quantity of air needed to perform at the highest levels. We know that wearing a surgical mask can increase the resistance to airflow. Exercise invariably leads to faster and harder breaths, so wearing a mask during exercise places a further strain on airflow.



When we do heavy exercise, our muscles produce lactic acid, which causes that burning sensation. It is then converted to carbon dioxide and exhaled. But what happens if the carbon dioxide is trapped by the mask? As you move from moderate to heavy exercise, you may be re-breathing carbon dioxide, which can reduce cognitive function and increase breathing rate.


There may also be less oxygen in the recycled air, which could imitate exercising at higher altitudes. So it is important we gain a better understanding of the limitations of heavy exercise with a face mask.


The need for this understanding is growing, given the story reported on an Australian News Channelof two teenage boys in China dying within a week of each other during compulsory physical education examinations while wearing face masks. Autopsies have not been performed, so it’s impossible to know whether the masks played a role in the boys’ deaths. But it raises the question, is it safe to exercise with a face mask on during COVID-19?


“Lindsay Bottoms explains that during heavy exercise, we exhale more carbon dioxide than usual. If that carbon dioxide is trapped by a face mask and re-inhaled, it could reduce brain function and make it harder to breathe properly.”



Lindsay Bottoms, reader/senior academic in exercise and health physiology, University of Hertfordshire


Source: Business Insider

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