Wearing a facemask during physical activity won’t weaken lung function: Study

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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It is a known fact that facemasks can help in controlling the spread of COVID-19 by reducing respiratory droplets and aerosols, but there was always a concern if the physical barrier created by masks increases the chance of dyspnea.

Wearing a mask will definitely create a physical barrier and this has brought the concerns that it might weaken the cardiopulmonary system by making the breathing process difficult harder, changing the flow of inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide and by increasing dyspnea, a medical term defining shortness or difficulty in breathing, especially during physical activity.

However, a recent study, published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society, a group of American and Canadian researchers found that there are chances for the impact of dyspnea to increase but there is no observed evidence that wearing a facemask can diminish lung function, even during heavy exercise.

“There might be a perceived greater effort with activity, but the effects of wearing a mask on the work of breathing, on gases like oxygen and CO2 in blood or other physiological parameters are small, often too small to be detected,” said the study’s first author Susan Hopkins, professor of medicine and radiology at University of California San Diego School of Medicine.

Prof. Hopkins further adds that “there’s also no evidence to support any differences by sex or age in physiological responses to exercise while wearing a facemask.” 

Though, during the study, it was noted that persons with critical cardiopulmonary disease had shown dyspnea symptoms with any barrier to breathing or minor changes in blood gases which are high enough to affect exercise. 

In such severe cases, people may feel uncomfortable exercising with a facemask. “However, the fact that these individuals are at great risk should they contract COVID-19 must also be considered,” Prof. Hopkins pointed out.

The research was concluded based on scientific literature published which evaluated the effects of different facemasks and respiratory loading devices on physiological and perceptual responses to physical activity.

These scientific studies examined various factors like work of breathing (the quantified energy expended to inhale and exhale), arterial blood gases, effects on muscle blood flow and fatigue, cardiac function and flow of blood to the brain.

For healthy people, the effects of wearing a mask of any type while doing exercise of any degree are low under these physiological markers. 

Wearing a facemask can create small breathing resistances and people may re-inhale warmer slightly enriched CO2 air. While exercising with the masks can make the face hot and sweaty, but it is sensory perception. It won’t cause any cardiopulmonary function in healthy people.

“So while dyspnea might be increased with a mask, you have to weigh that against the reduced risk of contracting COVID-19, knowing that the physiology is essentially unchanged,” Prof. Hopkins further added.