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Wearing a Mask While Exercising: Science vs. Courtesy

By Leo Rector

After nearly nine months of quarantine, many Westwood residents have returned to walking, jogging, biking, and hiking the streets and trails of Los Angeles. However, as COVID-19 cases spike throughout the winter, it is more important than ever to resolve the controversy surrounding wearing a mask during outdoor exercise.

Given that both the city of L.A. and the state of California require residents to wear masks when outside of the home, and especially whenever social distancing is not possible, it is strange that there is such a strong dispute over wearing a mask while exercising outdoors. Considering that health organizations like the CDC have been abundantly clear regarding the effectiveness of masks in slowing the spread, the resistance to adapt to wearing a mask while exercising outdoors is particularly concerning, especially in light of the more dramatic changes that many of us have learned to cope with. And yet, as an avid runner myself, the open hostility over this issue is obvious. Whether it be a post by a prominent athlete on social media, the comment section of a Runner’s World article, or even person to person interaction, it is clear that this topic has divided the community into two distinct camps: those that believe masks are ineffective, unnecessary, or dangerous, and those that mask up.

The overwhelming amount of research conducted on this issue indicates that wearing a mask has little to no effect on healthy individuals, even during vigorous exercise. In a study conducted by the University of Saskatchewan, researchers found that while test subjects had a slightly higher heart rate and perceived level of effort when wearing a mask, the effect on their overall performance was negligible. Recently, a second study from UC San Diego confirmed these results, with theadded conclusion that wearing a mask is only dangerous for people with severe cardiopulmonary diseases. So, if the science all points in one direction, where does the controversy start?

While the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing a mask in general, both organizations advise against wearing a mask that is damp or visibly soiled. On their mythbusters advice page for COVID-19, the WHO declared that people should not wear a mask during exercise because sweating can soak the mask, making it hard to breathe through and promoting the growth of bacteria. Since heavy sweating goes hand in hand with running and biking, it is easy to see where the science of mask-wearing contradicts itself. In the hot L.A. sun, I often find my mask wet barely minutes into a run, compromising both its effectiveness and my ability to breathe easily.

Although this area of confusion is significant, the supporters and nay-sayers of exercising with masks is the infamous Gaitergate. Following the discovery that most masks are inadequate in dealing with sweat, many runners turned to the neck gaiter, which entails a thin piece of breathable polyester fabric that can be pulled up over the nose. However, a study from Duke University that tested the droplettransmission through different types of masks concluded that neck gaiters are actually worse than no mask at all, as the thin single layer of fabric disperses large droplets into a number of smaller ones. The ensuing witch hunt for anyone brave enough to wear a neck gaiter in public is emblematic of the frustration surrounding the uncertainty of what mask we should wear, and when. As if thousands of hate comments on social media was not backlash enough, different researchers and scientists from across the country joined together to challenge the results of the Duke study, publishing their own findings which proved the complete opposite. Whatever the agenda, the one conclusive so. aspect about wearing a mask
while exercising is that nothing is absolutely good or bad.

Although the confusing and at times contradictory science is disappointing, perhaps the best way to resolve this argument is basic human decency. Whether one believes in the effectiveness of masks or not, it is not very difficult to establish six feet of social distance (which everyone agrees is beneficial) when outside. If wearing a mask is not a big deal and does not cause harm, then why not wear it? Better yet, why not plan a route for somewherewith little foot traffic in order to avoid unnecessary contact? The most important thing that we all need to realize is that getting to exercise outside is a privilege, and not a right. Different studies and guidelines can be debated all day long, with no clear and obvious winner. But wearing a social mask and maintaining social distance will always be a sign of courtesy and respect; it shows others that you care about their health and safety, without being forced to do so.

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