Should you wear a mask to exercise outside? Experts say sometimes — here's why

Leaving your house to buy groceries? Wear a mask. Going outdoors to exercise? The answer to whether you should wear a mask is less clear-cut.
U.S. Cities Continue To Shelter-In-Place As Coronavirus Spread Is Expected To Peak
Public safety experts want Americans to wear face masks when leaving the house. But does this apply to exercise? And if so, under what circumstances?Rob Kim / Getty Images

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/ Source: TODAY
By Maura Hohman

Wearing a face mask when you leave your home protects those around you, especially if you've been infected with the coronavirus and aren't showing symptoms. That's why earlier this month President Trump urged Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public.

When running errands where you're likely to come in contact with other people, the recommendation is obvious: Wear a face mask. But when you're staying outdoors and doing a solo activity, like running or walking, the necessity of the mask is less clear.

Here's guidance from experts on how to approach exercising outside as safely as possible.

Should you wear a face mask to exercise outside?

The answer depends on what you're doing and where, Dr. Richard Martinello, associate professor of infectious diseases at Yale School of Medicine in Connecticut, told TODAY.

"It's really an issue of whether you're socially distanced or not," he explained. "Let's say you're going for a jog, and you're by yourself, and you're running in areas where there's nobody else. Then you're appropriately socially distanced the whole time, and a mask isn't going to be helpful."

But if you're close to other people, and especially if you stop from time to time, then yes, a mask is beneficial.

If you can't guarantee that you won't bump into another person, then bring a mask with you, and put it on "if you find yourself in a circumstance where you're unable to social distance," Martinello said.

Only remove it when you're able to maintain social distance again.

Is the guidance different for urban versus rural areas?

The guidance doesn't change based on how populated your town is, but the setting you choose for your exercise does matter.

If you go to a location where you're likely to run into other people and can't separate yourself, like a popular trail through the woods, then wear a mask, Martinello advised.

On the other hand, if you're exercising in a location where there's space to "go to the other side of the sidewalk or street and maintain your social distance, then no mask would be necessary," he added.

Is it safe to run through your city?

When you live in a city and can't access a less crowded area, then you might not have space to socially distance while on your walk or run. So, mask or no mask?

It's fine to not wear one during the run itself, Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Maryland, told TODAY. Because you're moving quickly, not in an enclosed space and hopefully passing people only occasionally, then "the risk is close to zero," he said.

But not wearing a mask makes keeping distance from others even more important, and you should bring one with you to wear on the walk back home.

"You've then become a pedestrian like everybody else," Schaffner added.

What if you're doing a workout besides running?

Guidance for workouts where you're moving quickly, like biking, is the same, per Martinello. Maintain social distance as much as possible, and bring a mask in case you're in a situation where you can't.

For exercises where you stay in the same place, like a standing cardio workout, find a location where you can maintain and sustain social distance. But again, bring one with you in case other people show up.

Want to do a stationary exercise in an area with other people? Change your plans, Schaffner suggested.

What if you're exercising with a friend outside?

Schaffner believes it's fine not to wear a mask while exercising with someone you haven't been quarantining with — as long as you maintain social distance. He acknowledged, though, that other experts might feel differently.

"That's a wonderfully grey area ... because you're with a new person," he said. "Take your masks along and maintain some distance ... As soon as you finish your run, put on your masks."

Are there health risks to exercising with a mask?

Because face masks hinder breathing, Schaffner said it's important "to listen to your body." If the workout feels harder than usual, it's normal. Try doing fewer reps or not going for as long, he added.

Exercising with a reusable mask also creates a slight risk of a skin infection over time, according to Martinello.

"(A mask) is going to potentially irritate and abrade your skin a little bit," he explained. "If you aren't washing it, it's going to build up some bacteria."

So, wash the mask routinely like you would any exercise clothing.

There are plenty of "what ifs" for face masks and exercise, but expert guidance is actually pretty simple: Practice social distancing, and when doing so, you don't need to wear a mask. But bring one with you and wear it in situations where you can't socially distance.