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Healthy Adults Can Safely Work Out in a Face Mask: Review

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – New research should help allay concerns about both safety and potential athletic performance declines when healthy people wear a face mask during physical activities.

A systematic literature review found that healthy individuals can perform heavy exercise in face masks commonly worn for prevention of COVID-19 with minimal physiologic changes.

The study was presented this week during the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons’ annual meeting in Chicago and has been accepted for publication in Sports Health.

“The very practical reason for doing this study was that many patients were asking us about exercising in masks,” Dr. Cordelia Carter, an orthopedic surgeon with NYU Langone Health in New York City, noted in an interview with Reuters Health.

“In the summer of 2020, I would go outside and try to run in a mask, and was just finding myself very uncomfortable and wondering if it was safe,” she added.

The review, including 22 studies with a total of 583 participants, showed that wearing a mask during exercise had no significant effect on physiologic parameters measured including heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, and perceived exertion, in healthy individuals, including children and pregnant women.

Most studies looked at surgical masks. Of the studies that specifically investigated N95 masks in the healthy adult population, two reported modest changes in respiratory rate and maximum power output indicative of decreased athletic performance when healthy adults were working out to exhaustion.

Dr. Carter cautioned that the quality of the studies was low, with a small number of participants and probably underpowered.

This type of research is probably a “burgeoning field,” Dr. Carter said, and there will likely be new studies coming out that would warrant an updated review. “This is going to continue to be relevant, even with masks mandates going away now, my sense is that we’re going to continue to have intermittent or episodic mask mandates.”

SOURCE: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons Annual Meeting, March 22, 2022.

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