Health

Everything you need to know about masks and working out: Your COVID-19 questions answered

We're answering your questions about the pandemic. Send yours to COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday online, and also put some questions to the experts during The National and on CBC News Network.

From fitness classes to saunas, here's what you're asking us today

While an increasing number of regions across the country are mandating masks in indoor public settings, there are some exemptions. Working out in a gym is one of them. (Ahmed Yosri/Reuters)

We're breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic. Send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we'll answer as many as we can. We'll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we're also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and on CBC News Network. So far we've received more than 49,000 emails from all corners of the country.

Gyms are open. But are they safe? 

As restrictions continue to ease across the country, more gyms and fitness centres are opening their doors to Canadians who might be looking to lose their so-called quarantine fifteen.

But just because the gym is open, doesn't mean everyone is rushing back in. Flo C. wrote us to ask if fitness centres are safe, and how to handle mask-wearing when working out. 

First, it's important to remember that gyms must adhere to their local public health guidelines for safety during the pandemic, but despite measures to reduce the spread of infection, experts say gyms still carry a real risk.

"[Gyms] are slightly higher risk because people are producing more droplets with the force of their breathing," said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious disease physician at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton. "As opposed to a casual setting where you might just be having a conversation."

GoodLife Fitness, one of Canada's largest fitness chains, says they're making their clubs safer by focusing on physical distancing, reduced capacity levels, and enhanced cleaning and sanitization practices.

With some exceptions, you'll also see staff and clients required to wear masks.

Wait. You mean I have to wear a mask the whole time?

Not necessarily.

Despite mandatory mask rules in some areas of the country, some cities, like Toronto and Calgary, have said you don't have to wear them indoors when you're "engaging in athletic or fitness activity." 

The World Health Organization (WHO) says people shouldn't wear masks while exercising because they may reduce one's ability to breathe comfortably. 

"Sweat can make the mask become wet more quickly, which makes it difficult to breathe and promotes the growth of microorganisms," the WHO's guidance reads. 

GoodLife has stated it is only requiring masks when exercise is not taking place. But you'll still have to wear one when "entering and exiting the club and in change rooms, washrooms, and other common areas," said Jason Sheridan, senior vice-president of operations at GoodLife Fitness.

However, if you'd prefer to keep your mask on the whole time, the experts we spoke to said there's no danger, though it might not be comfortable at first.

WATCH | Going to the gym during the pandemic — What to expect:

With more gyms and fitness facilities opening up across the country, The National’s Andrew Chang walks through what to expect if you go for a workout during the pandemic. 1:41

"We're obviously not used to a lot of mask wearing while working out," said Chagla. "As long as the materials are breathable and people feel comfortable with them on, there shouldn't be an issue with wearing a mask at a gym."

But pay attention to how you're feeling. As long as you're not feeling overwhelmed, short of breath or overheating, then Chagla said "there's no medical reason why not to wear a mask at the gym."

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, agreed that it's safe to wear a mask while working out, unless you "refuse to clean and it gets coated in bacteria."  

He acknowledged that not everyone will be able to tolerate the feeling.

"[The mask] impedes your breathing a little bit and different people may react to that differently," he said.

Furness suggests starting at a low intensity and building up from there. If you are feeling light headed, then slow down.  

"People have not been into the gym in four months, so I think just lowering the intensity and working back up to it would be a good thing to do for your entire body, not just your breathing."

As far as the type of masks you should use, make sure it's made of the most breathable fabric.

Both Furness and Chagla suggested cotton.

What about all that heavy breathing in my yoga class?

While working out with others may be motivating, group yoga or exercise classes can be really risky, especially "in a room full of people where there's no ventilation," Furness warned. 

"I would call that downright dangerous."

A small room, large number of people, and poor ventilation all contribute to the increase in risk, Furness explained.

And make sure there are no large, plug-in fans turned on.

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The owner of United Boxing Club in Toronto's west end is already taking steps to cut the risk of infection inside his gym prior to opening his doors again. 2:43

"Moving air around the room is not only not helpful, but it's probably actively harmful," said Furness. 

"If the fan is pushing air around, that two-metres no longer matters all that much."

A safer workout would take place outside.

"There's no better ventilation than the good old outdoors," he said.

But if you still want to do indoor group fitness, Furness said you should look for classes with:

  • A very small number of participants.

  • A very large room.

  • Lots of "air space" and good ventilation.

Wearing masks in this environment should also be a given, said Furness. 

"I would not walk into the room — let alone do a yoga class —if i didn't see everyone wearing a mask."

Can I use the gym's sauna or steam room?

While the virus that causes COVID-19 doesn't do well in hot and humid conditions, Furness said that doesn't mean you can let your guard down in the sauna.

The benefits of heat and humidity are negated by the fact that you're sitting in an enclosed space, close to other people for a significant period of time. 

Chagla said it doesn't really matter whether it's hot or cold if you're sitting close to someone with COVID-19.

Furness agreed, and said if it's a really small space, the droplets could probably go from someone else's mouth into your mouth "very quickly" before the virus could be deactivated by the heat.

If you're going for steam or a sauna, Furness recommends going alone, or with people in your bubble.

Is it safe to get massage and physiotherapy? 

It's probably OK to get that kink worked on.

Services from registered massage therapists and physiotherapists are "relatively low risk," said Furness.

"They have very clear directions from their regulated colleges about safety," said Furness, who's had both services since reopening.  

"I trust them in terms of their protocols and because it's one-on-one."  

Most physiotherapy and massage therapy clinics have also made adjustments to the way they offer their services, including having fewer clients in their offices at the same time, stringent cleaning and a requirement to wear masks from both parties. 

And of course, you should reschedule your appointment if you're not feeling well.

About the Author

Ania Bessonov is a journalist with CBC Toronto and Ask CBC News.

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