New Delhi: On 3 November, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) chief Balram Bhargava said masks should be worn at all times, including while exercising.
“There is more and more data emerging about masks being protective and preventive and as good as a vaccine. Data also show that masks should be worn during exercise as well. It does not alter blood oxygen levels, so it should be worn while exercising or walking,” Bhargava had said during his weekly Covid briefing.
However, the health ministry’s guidelines on preventive measures in gyms and yoga institutes noted that while masks are mandatory inside the premises, they are not required while exercising.
“During yoga exercise or exercising in gymnasiums, as far as possible only a visor may be used. Use of masks (in particular N-95 masks) during exercise may cause difficulty in breathing,” the guidelines, issued on 3 August, said.
Speaking to ThePrint, several doctors, coaches and athletes agreed, saying that wearing masks during exercise could hinder air flow, especially the flow of oxygen. They noted that masks could increase the intake of carbon dioxide and also elevate heart rates, which increases the risk of collapsing.
What experts say
Dr Tarun Sharma, pulmonologist and consultant of respiratory medicine at Max Super Speciality Hospital in Saket, said masks should be avoided while exercising or exerting oneself.
“I have had people who complained of headaches and heavy breathing, or not being able to breathe while wearing a mask and exercising,” Sharma told ThePrint.
He explained that breathing into closed masks does not allow air to move out freely and equated it to breathing into a paper bag, where the carbon dioxide levels would start increasing gradually and could lead to people hyperventilating, or breathing very fast.
Instead of masking, Sharma recommends exercising in open spaces and maintaining distance.
According to Dr P.S.M. Chandran, president of the Indian Federation of Sports Medicine — a non-profit organisation — athletes need to take in more air and oxygen while running or exercising and, therefore, wearing masks can prove to be a hindrance.
“They should wear masks when they are not actually exercising and at all other times. However, people will not be able to train properly with a mask on as you need more oxygen. With masks, you will run out of air,” said Chandran.
Wearing masks while exercising could also aggravate chronic diseases, according to a study by the Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
In June, researchers from the institute in Karnataka noted that exercising with face masks may reduce the availability of oxygen and prevent substantial carbon dioxide exchange.
“The hypercapnic hypoxia may potentially increase acidic environment, cardiac overload, anaerobic metabolism and renal overload, which may substantially aggravate the underlying pathology of established chronic diseases,” the study noted.
What coaches and trainers say
Trainers and coaches ThePrint spoke to for this report agreed with the doctors, and said they do not make their students wear masks while training.
Devender Yadav, a cricket coach at the Bal Bharti Public School Academy in Dwarka, Delhi, said most of his students wear masks around their necks while exercising and put them back on while taking instructions. “When they are exercising — sprinting, bowling, batting or playing on the nets — it is not possible for them to have a mask on.”
Yadav, however, makes sure that all students maintain distance while running.
Manisha Khungar, a fitness coach in Gurugram who also trains triathletes, told ThePrint that she does not wear a mask when she runs and does not advise her trainees to wear one either.
“I tell my students not to wear one as it takes more carbon dioxide and the heart rate is elevated more than usual with a mask on. There are enough stresses on the body and wearing a mask only exacerbates it further”, said Khungar, adding that she trains her students in parks.
Khungar also said that she runs almost 60-70 km a week and wears a cloth muff around her neck while doing so. She pulls up the muff over her nose when she is around too many people.
Masks can make us collapse, say athletes
Athletes, players and even those who run for personal fitness said wearing masks during running or exercising is extremely difficult.
Running enthusiast Baiju Kuriakose, 47, said he does his warm-up jog with a mask, but removes it when he starts running. “One day, I tried wearing a mask while running and nearly collapsed,” he told ThePrint.
Ketaki Sathe, a triathlete who has run the IronMan triathlon — a long-distance triathlon race organised by the World Triathlon Corporation — said the humid weather in Mumbai, where she lives, makes it impossible to even put a cloth muff around her neck “as there is too much heat build-up”. Instead, she added, she puts it around her wrist.
Like Sathe, 17-year-old Raahul Sharma, who is training in cricket, said wearing a mask during practice or exercising makes it difficult for him to breathe. “I tried wearing a mask initially at the beginning of the lockdown but simply could not run. I am also asthmatic, so wearing a mask while sprinting was even more difficult.”
ThePrint also spoke to at least 20 runners (aged 15-65), who said they found it extremely difficult to wear a mask while running.