When stay-at-home orders began to ease in 2020 and gyms and fitness studios started opening, a slew of questions emerged for gym junkies, Orangetheory die-hards and all other fitness fiends. Is it safe to go to the gym? Do I still need to stay six feet away from everyone? How vigorously do I need to wipe down equipment?
In 2021, sticking to your home workout routine is still the only thing that ensures safety, but those who want to enjoy the community aspect of fitness are sure to ask one big question: Must I exercise with a face mask on?
In some parts of the US where people are lucky enough to have gym access, masks are still required. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone wear a mask or cloth face covering in public, especially in places where maintaining social distancing is difficult, like a grocery store or pharmacy. More recently, the CDC endorsed Dr. Anthony Fauci's recommendation to wear two masks at once.
But do those rules apply when you're breaking a sweat?
There's definitely a gray area, as the World Health Organization said last year that people shouldn't wear face masks while exercising because it could reduce the ability to breathe comfortably, noting that the most important factor in preventing disease spread is distancing yourself from others.
Either way, because the thought of exercising with a face mask on sounds, uh, miserable, CNET talked to a few experts who discuss everything there is to know about exercising while wearing a face mask.
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Is it safe to exercise with a face mask on?
Generally, yes, it's safe for most people to exercise while wearing a face mask, Grayson Wickham, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning specialist at Movement Vault, tells CNET.
"Most people can perform every and all exercises with a face mask on," Wickham says. "You will want to monitor how you're feeling while exercising and watch out for specific symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, numbness or tingling and shortness of breath."
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Should you wear two masks while exercising?
With the new recommendation to wear two face masks in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, many people wonder if that also applies to fitness settings. Wearing two masks is likely to feel more uncomfortable than wearing one, although you should adapt just like you adapted to wearing one mask.
Layering another mask probably won't feel much different for people who've already become accustomed to wearing a mask while exercising. Going from no mask to two masks while exercising will likely present some initial discomfort, but it won't actually impede oxygen flow. Watch for the same symptoms that might occur with one mask -- dizziness, lightheadedness -- and stop exercising if you feel faint.
If your top priority is safety, you should either wear two masks or a more protective mask such as a KF94, especially in indoor settings. If you prefer not to wear two masks (or even one) while exercising, you should work out at home or outdoors in sparsely populated areas.
Should anyone not exercise with a face mask on?
Wickham says people who have underlying cardiovascular or respiratory conditions should take caution when exercising with a face mask on. The severity of their condition will dictate whether or not it's appropriate for them to exercise with a face mask on, Wickham says.
"Someone that has an underlying respiratory condition that is on the more severe side will want to exercise indoors without a face mask," he says, to ensure safety for themselves and others.
Examples of such conditions include asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), bronchitis, cystic fibrosis, pulmonary fibrosis and any other conditions that affect the heart or lungs. If you have a cardiovascular or respiratory condition, it's a good idea to ask your doctor about exercising with a face mask before attempting to do it. If you can't go see your doctor right now, try calling or scheduling a telemedicine visit.
Also, people who are new to exercising or haven't exercised in a long time should pay extra attention if exercising while wearing a face mask. Monitor the intensity of your workout and keep it on the low-to-moderate side to avoid symptoms like dizziness and fainting, Wickham says.
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What happens when you exercise with a face mask on?
Compared with normal breathing, wearing any kind of protective mask decreases the flow of air into your lungs, Scott McAfee, physical therapist and orthopedic specialist at MovementX, tells CNET. Less oxygen in your lungs means less oxygen in your bloodstream and your working muscles, which is what makes training more difficult.
"Different masks have varying levels of airflow restriction, depending on the thickness of the material," McAfee says. "With less air, your body has less available oxygen to utilize during exercise to convert glucose [sugar] into energy."
McAfee says that anyone, even those who have a relatively high level of fitness, should expect to fatigue faster when exercising with a face mask, comparing this scenario to altitude training or wearing an oxygen deprivation mask to elicit greater respiratory fitness (this is something that elite athletes do).
"Over a few weeks, your body will certainly adapt by becoming more efficient at metabolizing oxygen, but this takes time," McAfee says. "If you start to feel dizzy, imbalanced, or overly fatigued, stop. Be smart [and] don't over do it."
However, some studies have shown that while masks might make it feel like you can't breathe as well, they don't actually impede oxygen consumption or fitness performance.
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What to expect while exercising with a face mask on
"Due to the increase in breathing resistance, it's normal to get out of breath quicker than you typically would in your workout when not wearing the face mask," Wickham says. "You may not be able to perform at the same level that you would when not wearing the face mask," he says, adding that you can expect a decrease in your workout performance while wearing a face mask.
Someone who has a higher fitness level may not feel the effects of a face mask as harshly as someone who is just starting to exercise, Wickham says, but even very fit people will most likely not be able to perform at their typical level. The intensity of the effect also depends on the thickness of the mask. A flimsy cotton mask won't impede oxygen flow as much as a thicker, multi-layer mask.
Pay attention to how your body responds to your workout while wearing a face mask, especially during higher-intensity exercises, such as heavy weightlifting, sprints, plyometrics, CrossFit-style workouts, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and cardio workouts.
If you do feel lightheaded, dizzy or extremely short of breath, you should sit down and take a break. If the symptoms don't go away relatively soon, you should take your mask off to allow yourself to breathe normally, Wickham says. If you do need to take your mask off, always follow your state's public health rules. Go outdoors and try to maintain at least six feet of distance between you and other people.
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How to not feel restricted while exercising with a face mask on
Sorry -- you're not really going to get around this one.
"Unfortunately, it is hard to get around feeling constricted while wearing the mask," Wickham says. "The good news is, your lungs and cardiovascular system are getting an extra workout while you are wearing your face mask because it is providing extra breathing resistance."
A silver lining: The more you exercise with a face mask on, the more accustomed your body will become to the reduced flow of oxygen, and theoretically, you should feel like a beast when you can finally work out without a face mask on.
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How to know if you're getting enough oxygen
As long as you don't have an underlying respiratory or cardiovascular condition, and are listening to your body, you will most likely be getting enough oxygen while exercising with a face mask on, Wickham says.
The most accurate way to determine if you're getting enough oxygen is to use a pulse oximeter, Wickham says, which tells you exactly the oxygen saturation of your blood. Newer activity watches, including the Fitbit Sense and Apple Watch Series 6, provide blood oxygen saturation measurements.
"The next best thing is to simply listen to your body," he says. "If you experience lightheadedness, dizziness, extreme shortness of breath or numbness and tingling, you need to stop exercising and sit down and take a break."
Wickham warns against pushing through these sensations: "If you feel any of these symptoms, this is your body telling you that something is not right, that you are not getting enough oxygen into your lungs and to the rest of your body," he says.
The bottom line: You can safely exercise with a face mask on, provided you heed your body's warning signs.
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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.