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CDC updates: Wear a mask while exercising indoors at gyms

New CDC research urges gym-goers to wear masks while working out at fitness centers, even during high-intensity exercise.
Woman and Man running on treadmills at the gym while wearing breathable face masks
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said gym-goers should wear masks in fitness centers, including during high-intensity exercise. Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently shared new guidance about gyms following research into high rates of coronavirus transmission at gyms and fitness centers in Hawaii and Chicago over the summer of 2020, noting gym-goers and gym staff “should wear a face mask” at fitness facilities across the country. The recommendation to wear masks applies even when gym patrons and staff are socially distanced, as well as for those who've been vaccinated. In its otherwise newly released guidance for those who are fully vaccinated, the CDC advises to “keep taking precautions in public places like wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart from others and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces.”

SKIP AHEAD Best face masks to wear at the gym

The CDC published its conclusions about gyms in Morbidity and Mortality Reports, a weekly roundup of public health news. The instances in Hawaii and Chicago emphasize the importance of “consistent and correct mask use,” and how “increased respiratory exertion facilitates Covid transmission,” the CDC shared in the report. Researchers urged gyms to require patrons wear masks during exercise and practice physical distancing, as well as improve ventilation and decrease class sizes. While many states have some sort of mask mandate in place, they don’t all require gym-goers to wear masks while working out. Some fitness centers like Planet Fitness, for example, created their own mask mandates, while others allow people to exercise bare-faced.

The most critical Covid mitigation measure overall is wearing a face mask, and this is especially true while exercising, according to Jessica Steier, doctor of public health and CEO of healthcare data analytics company Vital Statistics Consulting and Andrea Love, PhD, an immunologist and microbiologist. Steier and Love explained that when you exercise, you have more forceful and rapid respiration. This means you’re exhaling and inhaling a larger volume of air. In turn, the relative risk of exposure to Covid droplets may be increased compared to standing still in the same space. And physical distancing alone won’t protect you.

“Six feet is an average distance these respiratory droplets can spread — some will travel shorter distances, some further,” said Love, an immunology consultant for Vital Statistics Consulting. “Indoors, you should be coupling mask wearing, the primary mitigation measure, with distancing, improved ventilation and proper hygiene.”

Given this most recent CDC research on Covid transmission at gyms, we consulted experts about the best masks to wear while exercising indoors and some safety measures to consider practicing at fitness centers during the pandemic.

Best face masks to wear at the gym

1. Adidas Face Cover

Adidas’ dual-layered face masks — which come in packs of three — are made from polyester. They’re designed with 40-percent recycled materials and come in two sizes: Small and Medium/Large. Adidas said the Medium/Large face mask fits most adults, but if the measurement between the bridge of your nose and chin is less than 5.5 inches, they recommend the small size. The masks are available in three colors: White, Blue Bird and Black.

2. Under Armour UA Sports Mask

Under Armour’s face mask is made from three layers of fabric, including a middle layer of foam to filter out particulate and an inner layer made from anti-microbial fabric designed to feel cool against skin. It has a flexible nose bridge and a strip of fabric on the top to eliminate gaps and ensure glasses don’t fog up. The outer layer of the mask is water-resistant — while the mask is machine-washable, Under Armour recommends hand washing it. The mask comes in five sizes, ranging from Extra Small/Small to Extra Large/Extra Extra Large, as well as four colors: Black/Charcoal, Pitch Gray/Mod Gray, Slate Purple/Arctic Pink and Red/Silver Chrome.

3. Reebok Face Mask

Reebook’s dual-layered face masks are made from 93-percent recycled polyester. They come in two sizes: Extra Small/Small and Medium/Large. The masks come in a pack of three, are designed with stretch ear loops and have a tight fit that conforms to the. They’re machine-washable, too.

4. Athleta Activate Face Mask

Athleta’s face masks come in a pack of two and are made from quick-drying fabric. The masks feature a flexible nose bridge that allows you to customize its fit around the nose and cheek bones. It’s also designed with adjustable ear loops. According to Athleta’s internal testing, its face masks showed an average 90.3-percent particle blocking performance. These masks must be hand-washed and they’re available in five colors: Island Coral/Hearth Rose, Dusk Purple/Gentle Blue, Charcoal Grey, Velvety Pink/Osprey Grey and Twilight Lilac/Voyage Grey. They also have mask lanyards that can be attached to your existing masks.

5. Koral Netz Face Mask

Koral’s face masks are made from performance fabrics like those used in the brand’s clothing. Fabric is quick-drying and tight knit, as well as stretches around the face for a tight fit. The masks come in four colors: Aubergine, Hale, Midnight Blue and Ruby. Koral also makes a Shiny Netz Face Mask in four colors: Flamingo, Black, White and Neon Lime.

How to buy a mask to wear while exercising

Steier said the mask you exercise in should conform to the CDC’s general guidelines on face coverings.

  • Look for multiple layers of material for optimal protection, as well as for masks with high thread counts, high fabric density and tightly woven cloth — they offer the most protection.
  • Stay away from exhalation valves and ensure your mask fits tightly around the cheeks, under the chin and over the nose bridge: A proper fit is crucial.

The CDC states that wearing masks during exercise is safe, and wearing a face mask won't necessarily harm your workout, according to studies that showed they don't significantly restrict oxygen flow. But when you’re doing high intensity cardio like treadmill running, Love said a KN95, N95, KF94 or even double masks may become uncomfortable. In those cases, if you decide to wear a single mask, make sure it has two to three layers of fabric and fits your face properly. Steier suggests inserting an additional filter inside the mask, and exercising as far away from other people as possible. If you’re doing low intensity exercise like yoga or pilates, she said to wear as much protection as possible — double mask or wear a respirator like a KN95, N95 or KF94.

Gaiters and balaclavas

Steier and Love, who host the Unbiased Science Podcast, noted that gaiters (often called running buffs) and balaclavas don’t offer as much protection as a higher quality and better fitting mask. They’re typically made of a single layer of thinly woven flexible fabric and get saturated with moisture very quickly.

“If you are simply running into a convenience store to pay for gas, a gaiter is likely a better option than no face covering,” said Love. “But I would steer clear of these for extended indoor activities, particularly going to the gym.”

The CDC’s guidance on face coverings, however, states that gaiters with two layers, or gaiters that can be folded so they have two layers, can be worn. While balaclavas are not substitutes for masks, the CDC noted they can be worn over masks. To that end, some sports brands have created highly-filtering gaiters for just this purpose, among them the Tommie Copper Community Wear Face Mask Gaiter and the Carhartt Cotton Gaiter.

Additional CDC guidance regarding wearing a mask while exercising

The CDC notes that individuals who have lung diseases like asthma or heart disease should be evaluated by their healthcare provider before attempting exercise with any face mask. The CDC also states:

  • Do vigorous and high-intensity exercise outside when possible
  • While exercising, stay at least 6 feet away from other people and wear a mask
  • If your mask becomes saturated with sweat, replace it with a clean mask while exercising

Tips for exercising at the gym during the pandemic

Steier and Love, as well as the CDC, said the safest way to exercise during the pandemic is at home or outdoors. But if that isn’t feasible, here are some ways to stay as safe as possible while exercising indoors at a fitness center.

  • To reduce exposure to airborne droplets from previous guests, go to the gym first thing in the morning when it opens. As the day progresses, the number of people who will cumulatively share the same indoor space will increase substantially, as will the potential risk for exposure.
  • Otherwise, try to go to your gym when there are as few other people as possible, and try to space yourself out as much as possible from others.
  • Try to utilize spaces in the gym that are well-ventilated. If the gym has installed improved ventilation during the pandemic, that’s in your favor. If not, try to station yourself near open doors or windows that are able to pull in fresh air.
  • Disinfect any equipment you are using both before and after use.
  • Bringing your own water bottle is safer than sharing a communal water fountain. If possible, use a bottle that has a reusable straw, or add a reusable straw to your water bottle. Instead of taking your mask off to drink, slip the straw under the chin of your mask.
  • Bring your own towel to the gym to ensure it’s clean and properly sanitized.
  • It’s best to avoid the showers if possible, since you can’t get masks wet — otherwise they lose their efficacy. If you need to shower at the gym, shower as quickly as possible and only remove your mask when your face and head is going to get wet.
  • Disinfect the exterior of the locker door and the interior of the locker before using it.
  • If you are using the locker room, keep your mask on and limit how much time you spend there. Be conscious of others in the locker room who are not wearing masks, and stay away from others as much as possible.
  • Wash your hands frequently and use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available — if the gym doesn’t offer hand sanitizer, bring your own.

CORRECTION (April 1, 2021, 3:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the certification status of masks made by HaloLife. After consulting lab reports and experts, NBC News confirmed that the masks did not meet a new standard for reusable masks. As a result, the HaloLife products were removed from the list of best face masks to wear at the gym.

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