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Positive Physiologic Changes with Masks 

ISSUE 125 / 2020 

Positive Physiologic Changes with Masks 

Many of us are wearing masks when we step out of the house these days (according to the State of Colorado, we all have to wear masks in public indoor spaces like ALTA). You might have noticed: a piece of material covering your nose and mouth makes breathing feel different. Masks soak up moisture, fog up glasses, and if you’re with someone who mumbles, good luck hearing what they have to say! In Boulder, the current mask order includes some types of outdoor exercise: any time you cannot maintain “social distance of at least six feet” from people outside your bubble, your mask should cover your nose and mouth. 

I know how important masks are for keeping everyone in our communities safe, so I’ve been wearing one every time I leave the house to exercise. As I was running up the valley trail, feeling as though I was sucking my whole mask right into my mouth, and working harder than usual to breathe, I remembered that this might actually be good for me. 

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, some people were using

devices to actually make inhaling harder. The idea is that you could strengthen respiratory muscles and improve athletic performance. Scientific studies have shown some improvements in respiratory compensation threshold (Lactate Threshold), power output at threshold, and muscle growth following breathing training. True, a mask you might use during the pandemic will not provide a huge amount of breathing resistance, but since we all should be wearing them anyway right now, think of it as a new and innovative way to target your workout. And since you only need to have it on when you are near others, it’s a bit of resistance training in intervals. Imagine how killer your lung strength is going to be by the end of this! 

But what if you’re not looking for resistance training? Could a mask be bad for you? Long story short, an appropriate mask that fits you well is not going to be bad for your breathing, and should be comfortable to wear for long periods of time. The World Health Organization definitively tells us that surgical masks do not cause low O2 saturation or excess CO2 in the blood. Employees at ALTA are wearing their masks all day and no one has fainted! 

You may say, “It feels so different to exercise with my mask – surely there must be something going on with that!” Well, there are some changes that occur when wearing a mask to exercise, such as: 

Increased heart rate by 5-10 bpm for the same intensity of exercise 

Increased level of perceived exertion 

Less effective virus blocking if the mask becomes wet. Isolated cases of dizziness or lightheadedness—perhaps because masks simulate the “physiological effects of altitude training, albeit on a smaller scale.” 

So you might pick up your heart rate a little bit, or feel like you’re working harder – or both. If you’re concerned about getting your heart rate up, try exercising at a lower intensity than usual while wearing the mask, but please continue to wear one.

Most scientists agree that more research is needed, but no evidence so far suggests that exercising with a mask is at all dangerous. Of course, you should always listen to your body and stop exercising if you feel dizzy or lightheaded, mask or not! Since discomfort seems to come mostly from a damp mask (eww), you can try bringing a dry backup. To minimize discomfort, try different types of masks to see what feels best (paper surgical masks are bad for exercise; synthetic fiber cloth masks seem better) and make sure the mask fits properly. 

Nobody is dying to wear a mask, and to keep you from dying, just wear one. Besides, when you take it off, at the end of your exercise routine, you’ll feel great. And if the practice of wearing a mask takes all the joy out of exercise, we have options! You can skip the mask and exercise in the safety of your own home via ZOOM Pilates classes at ALTA

At ALTA, we care about your health and we want you to keep moving in the safest way possible. Know someone who needs convincing? Please share by forwarding this to them or on your Facebook with the link below. 

If we can do anything to make your exercise less painful and more joyful, we are here for you. 


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