Should You Wear Your Mask at the Gym?

gym class masking

Verywell Health / Ellen Lindner

Key Takeaways

  • Some fitness centers or gyms require members to show proof of vaccination or wear a mask while working out. 
  • In facilities without mask mandates, people may still wear a mask if they choose.
  • For vaccinated and unvaccinated members alike, wearing a mask can reduce the spread of aerosolized droplets while working out.

Gyms and fitness centers have reopened with limited capacity and “new normal” requirements such as showing proof of vaccination and restricting the number of workout stations.

But some fitness instructors and gym members said they don’t feel that vaccination requirements alone are enough to protect them from the Omicron surge.

Meleki Wamulume, a group fitness instructor at F45 Training in Philadelphia, told Verywell that he started wearing a mask again during workouts because he doesn’t feel safe.

“Somebody else could walk in with a vaccine card and maybe they’ve not been doing their part, and I could fall victim to that,” Wamulume said. “The chances of me getting [COVID-19] are higher since I’m always in that studio, and I’m seeing a lot of people come in and out.”

In Philadelphia, gyms and recreational facilities must either require staff and patrons to show proof of vaccination or require all staff and patrons to wear a masks while indoors. Some group fitness businesses like F45 Training strictly require vaccination for everyone rather than masks.

Gyms may pose increased risk for COVID-19 transmission as research shows that intense exercise may generate more droplets and aerosol particles and potentially spread the virus. One study suggests that masks should be required because it’s difficult to maintain a safe distance in a confined space.

Recommended Safety Protocols for Gyms

COVID-19 transmission in fitness facilities likely results from the absence of face masks, extended close contact, and poor ventilation, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In the CDC investigation, an instructor shouting throughout a one-hour stationary cycling class may have contributed to COVID-19 spread, despite the bikes being spaced six feet apart.

To reduce COVID-19 risk, gyms should enforce consistent mask use and social distancing as well as limit class size, according to the researchers. Conducting classes outdoors or virtually could further reduce transmission risk.

As of June 2021, the CDC guidance recommends that fitness facilities use a “hierarchy of controls.” This means maximizing fresh air, spacing out equipment, installing physical barrier, making foot traffic flow in a single direction, and using touchless payment methods.

The guidance also advises to prioritize administrative controls like requiring staff to attend a health safety training, implementing frequent cleaning and disinfecting, and requiring staff to stay home if they feel sick.

Masking During Exercise: Is It For Everyone?

Tanya Khan, MD, a Texas-based oculoplastic surgeon and a member at Orangetheory Fitness, has been wearing a mask to class and frequently wiping down her equipment since the studio reopened.

“I’m used to wearing a mask professionally during surgery for hours at a time, and [I’m] really not compromised so far as breathing goes,” Khan told Verywell. “We have people’s vision and livelihood and life at stake, and yet we’re able to accomplish the most precise tasks while wearing a mask.”

Although masking can reduce COVID-19 transmission, it may not always be the right choice.

The CDC advises against masking during a workout if it creates a new risk that is greater than the benefit. If the mask hinders a person’s ability to see properly or contributes to a heat-related illness, it shouldn't be worn. Further risks may exist for people who have trouble breathing or cannot remove the mask on their own.

One study found that wearing an N95 mask during heavy workouts increased a person’s carbon dioxide levels, which could cause symptoms like headache and fatigue. While this finding is significant to the study, wearing an N95 mask during workouts doesn’t appear to affect someone’s health negatively in reality, Danny Epstein, MD, lead author of the study, told Verywell in an email.

“The effect of masking on [breathing] is only mild, and therefore wearing a mask during physical activity is safe and feasible, although not comfortable,” Epstein said.

He added that he would recommend people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated to consider wearing N95 masks, or at least surgical masks, during indoor workouts.

Choosing a Mask That Works for You

Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, an air quality engineer and the founder of Patient Knowhow, supports wearing N95 masks at the gym as long as they're breathable.

One way to tell if a mask is breathable is if it has a low “pressure drop” number, he said. Not all companies release this information, but it should be available on the initial report they submitted to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which is required for companies to be certified as N95.

Srikrishna added that it's important to acknowledge different preferences and thresholds for the types of masks people can tolerate. For those who don't have access to an N95, he recommends finding a mask that fits well. For example, KF94 masks seem to be more reliable and consistent than KN95 in terms of regulations and consistency, he said.

“You need to find the right one, just like shoes,” Srikrishna added.

People who cannot tolerate a mask during a workout or feel that their mask does not offer enough protection might consider bringing a portable air filter to a workout class or opting for outdoor exercises, he said.

For Wamulume, the challenge of masking varies by the type of exercises. For example, a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) full-body workout that involves a lot of up and down movements would make breathing through a mask difficult, he said. But strength training is easier.

He recommends a moisture-wicking mask that is less absorbent than a surgical mask, which may get damp or even start to fall apart if it gets too sweaty. It’s also important to wash the masks after workouts to maintain hygiene, he said.

Going at Your Own Pace

Returning to her fitness routine with a mask on took some adjustment for Khan. At the beginning, she had trouble breathing properly through a mask while she ran on a treadmill.

“I had to learn to listen to my body more,” Khan added. “If that meant that I couldn’t run at the same speed or run continuously for the half hour of the class, that’s okay.”

Khan said she can still get in a successful workout while masking and has learned how to balance her exertion levels at a “happy medium.”

“If you can wear a mask during an intense class, where your heart rate is going at maximum capacity sometimes, then you can certainly wear the mask when you’re out and about,” she said.

What This Means For You

Depending on where you live and what gyms or fitness studios you attend, you may or may not be required to wear a mask while you work out. Even without a mask mandate, however, wearing a mask during group exercise may offer extra protection against COVID-19.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. City of Philadelphia. Gyms and recreational facilities.

  2. Helgeson SA, Lee AS, Patel NM, Taylor BJ, Lim KG, Niven AS. Cardiopulmonary exercise and the risk of aerosol generation while wearing a surgical maskChest. 2021;159(4):1567-1569. doi:10.1016/j.chest.2020.09.088

  3. Córdova A, Latasa I. Respiratory flows as a method for safely preventing the coronavirus transmission (COVID-19)Apunts Sports Med. 2020;55(206):81-85. doi:10.1016/j.apunsm.2020.05.001

  4. Groves LM, Usagawa L, Elm J, et al. Community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 at three fitness facilities — Hawaii, June–July 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021;70:316–320. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7009e1

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 employer information for gyms and fitness centers.

  6. Epstein D, Korytny A, Isenberg Y et al. Return to training in the COVID‐19 era: the physiological effects of face masks during exerciseScand J Med Sci Sports. 2020;31(1):70-75. doi:10.1111/sms.13832

By Claire Wolters
Claire Wolters is a staff reporter covering health news for Verywell. She is most passionate about stories that cover real issues and spark change.