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Fact/Fiction: Is it safe to exercise with a face mask on?

Old news, truthfully retold. The long-running debate over the safety of exercising while wearing a face mask is back. The Big Issue looks into it
Image credit: Miles Cole

Every week in Fact/Fiction, The Big Issue examines spurious claims, questionable studies or debatable stories from the press to determine whether they are fact or fiction. This week we look at the long-running debate on whether it is safe to exercise while wearing a mask as new scientific studies brought the debate back into the news last week.

How it was told

There is not much respite from lockdown – save for a brief excursion outdoors to go for a walk or exercise.

For as long as face masks have been commonplace, so has the debate on whether wearing them during exercise is safe.

Last week the debate started again with the publication of a new study from Italy, published in the European Respiratory Journal, that moved the science a step closer to the ultimate answer.

The Guardian set the tone with their coverage, reporting that: “Face masks safe to use during intense exercise, research suggests”.

The Mail Online took the story a step further with: “Wearing a mask during intense exercise is safe and only has a ‘small effect’ on performance, study finds”.

Unsurprisingly, fitness magazine Men’s Health was on to the news too. They opted for: “Wearing a Face Mask During Intense Exercise Is Safe, Research Finds”.

MSN’s take placed emphasis on just who the study was targeted at. Their headline read: “Healthy people ‘safe to exercise while wearing mask’”.

The Daily Telegraph’s Alice Barraclough was less impressed. Her story ran under the headline: “Why I won’t be wearing a face mask while exercising”.

This latest round of stories adds to the sea of differing headlines on the subject. Look back to June 2020, and headlines like The Mirror’s “Exercising with a face mask on ‘could prove fatal’, expert warns” were commonplace.

You’d be forgiven for being confused on the subject – so what do the reports tell us now?

Facts. Checked

The key word in these reports is ‘healthy’ – the study tells us a little bit about how undertaking intense exercise while wearing a face mask affects performance and safety for healthy people, but is not the starter pistol for everyone to exercise in a mask.

Researchers at cardiology centres in Milan worked with 12 healthy volunteers – six men and six women with an average age of 40. Each person rode an exercise bike three times: once while not wearing a face mask, once while wearing a single-use surgical mask and once while wearing a ‘filtering face piece 2’ or FFP2 mask.

The tests showed face masks had a small effect on volunteers, showing an average reduction of around 10 per cent in their ability to perform aerobic exercise.

Dr Massimo Mapelli, from Centro Cardiologico Monzino and the University of Milan, said: “This reduction is modest and, crucially, it does not suggest a risk to healthy people doing exercise in a face mask, even when they are working to their highest capacity.”

But he also added: “However, we should not assume that the same is true for people with a heart or lung condition. We need to do more research to investigate this question.”

One of the reasons why more research is needed is the limited nature of the study – with just 12 people the study is extremely small and tells us little about the situation for people with underlying conditions.

The reports do a mixed job of reporting on this study. The Guardian, for instance, omits the vital point about healthy people from the headline and the opening paragraphs of their story. Both MSN and Mail Online do a better job.

The science here is still ahead of official guidance. The World Health Organisation says: “Masks should not be worn during vigorous physical activity because of the risk of reducing your breathing capacity.” Public Health England advises similar.

A lot of the previous trepidation around wearing masks during exercise can be traced back to April 2020 when there were widespread reports of the deaths of two teenage boys in China during exercise while masked. But it is unknown whether the two deaths were ever attributed to wearing face masks, according to US fact checker Snopes.

The latest stories can be treated as good news for healthy people who hope to exercise while wearing a mask – but more research is needed. And for those with heart or lung conditions, it is certainly worth waiting for that research to be done, or for guidance to change.