New U of S study finds mask use has no effect on exercise performance or oxygen levels for healthy people

Saskatchewan's new mandatory mask rules won't apply to people exercising indoors, but one University of Saskatchewan professor says that doesn't make sense.

Sask. mask exemption for indoor exercise unwarranted, says researcher

University of Saskatchewan researcher Phil Chilibeck and his colleagues have released a study that found mask use has no effect on exercise performance or oxygen levels. Saskatchewan's new mandatory indoor mask rule for Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert takes effect Friday but exempts those exercising. (Don Somers/CBC)

Saskatchewan's mandatory mask rules won't apply to people exercising indoors, an exception one researcher says doesn't make sense.

Phil Chilibeck and a team at the University of Saskatchewan have published a new study showing mask use, even three-layer coverings, have no effect on exercise performance, oxygen levels or any other indicator for healthy individuals.

Chilibeck plans to pass the findings to provincial health authorities and hopes they'll reconsider the exemption.

"In closed gyms, there is a good potential for COVID transmission," Chilibeck said. 

"People should be wearing masks. It should be the rule."

A new mandatory mask rule takes effect for indoor public spaces in Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina, Sask. on Friday. People exercising are exempt. (New World Fitness website)

With record case numbers over the past several days, a new mandatory mask order takes effect Friday in Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina.

Masks will be required for people in most public indoor spaces, but people engaged in physical activity will be exempt. The order will remain in effect for at least 28 days.

Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan's chief medical health officer, said the new rules attempt to strike a "balance." He said most gyms and restaurants — which are also exempt while patrons are seated — have done a good job creating safe environments. Those rules can be revisited at any time, he said.

Regina infectious disease specialist Dr. Alex Wong said it can be uncomfortable to wear a mask while exercising, but for now people should at least consider it during less intense cardiovascular workouts such as weight lifting or walking.

"I think masks are a zero-risk way to reduce community transmission and transmission of COVID-19," Wong said.

Chilibeck said the results are clear. Masks don't impede workouts, so there should be no exemption.

He noted the recent case of a Hamilton spin bike studio. Owners were vigilant about their cleaning and other protocols, but participants biked without masks and a big outbreak occurred, he said.

The study was conducted with U of S colleagues Keely Shaw, Scotty Butcher, Jongbum Ko and Gordon A. Zello, and published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Participants rode stationary bikes with or without various types of masks. Their results were "identical" for both maximum power output and endurance under all mask scenarios, he said.

Chilibeck said he's worn masks during exercise for years when conducting research in parts of China or other highly polluted areas.

"You get used to it after a while," he said.


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