In the past, those who huffed and puffed audibly through training were just annoying. Now – as they share equipment and haunt gyms with sweat and heavy breath – they can be downright deadly, emitting tiny, potentially infectious particles that linger in the air for hours. This makes gyms a particularly high-risk environment for COVID-19 exposure. But as temperatures start to drop, indoor gyms beckon. According to a survey of over 2,000 people that OnePoll conducted on behalf of LIFEAID Beverage Co., four in ten Americans say they’ll return to the gym at the same or faster rate once it reopens 31 percent of the fitness -Studio members have actually returned, according to a survey by RunRepeat of over 5,000 people.)
No matter where you train, the advice of public health officials, microbiologists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease experts is clear: wear a damn mask. However, the type of mask you can get away with may depend on your surroundings.
Three-layer surgical masks (those disposable, rectangular blue and white masks) and cotton masks were most effective at preventing droplets from spreading. This comes from a study published in Science Advances in September – something exponentially more important when you’re exercising in an enclosed space (and even more so when other people are around).
The three-layer system is recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). “The surface is usually made of a durable, breathable substance. the inner part is more water resistant; and the third part that comes in contact with your face is a lighter cotton or linen, ”explains Philip M. Tierno, clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University and author of First, Wear a Face Mask.
A simple cotton mask should have at least four layers, according to the WHO, while nylon blends and 100 percent polyester masks offer two to five times the efficiency when folded in two layers compared to a single layer.
Some sports companies use the same fabrics to make masks that they use to make high-tech tops and bottoms. This can affect the comfort of the mask. “A lot of masks use moisture wicking materials and have a little stretch, and that’s useful,” says Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health and director of the Center for Global and Immigrant Health. “You want one that fits over your mouth and nose and sits snugly against your cheeks while being flexible enough to bend over when you move.”
You may see companies promoting masks with antimicrobial treatments, such as: UA sports mask [$30; underarmour.com]with an antimicrobial treatment of the inner layer; or the Space mask [$19; shopspacemask.com], with an antibacterial filter in the middle and an antibacterial coating on the outer layer. “There may be some advantages to this, but there aren’t any studies to show it,” says Rimoin.
Other companies make masks from nanofibers, super-small synthetic fibers that block microscopic particles while allowing better airflow. Coronavirus particles are approximately 0.125 micrometers (1/1000 millimeter) in size. So, you need to check what size particle a mask is blocking, says Tierno (keep in mind that these particles are almost always attached to something larger). The HALO Life Black Mesh Mask with HALO nanofilter technology [$34.95, halolife.io]For example, claims to block particles down to 0.1 micrometers; SMRTFTs sports mask [$24.95, smrtft.com] claims to block particles from 1.7 to 2.6 microns.
Certain masks even come with filters or a bag for a filter. “These little replaceable filters will remove some particles from the air, but they won’t necessarily be able to filter out viruses efficiently,” says Rimoin. A workout face mask is “less about the bells and whistles and more about making sure everything is covered with three layers of fabric,” she adds.
Outside, you could get away with a one- or two-layer mask like the one from Adidas [$20, adidas.com] or Reebok [$20, reebok.com]. That said, “we know that breathing spits out these particles that can be suspended in mid-air,” says Tierno (recommending staying at least 10 feet away from other outdoor exercisers). “It’s better to play it safe,” he says when it comes to wearing a mask. At least three layers of fabric are still recommended outdoors.
Both Tierno and Rimoin warn against neck gaiters and bandanas. In the study recently published in Science Advances, the neck seal tested actually split larger droplets into smaller ones, making them easier to spread. (This may not be the case with all neck gaiters. The tested one was a single layer fleece made from a blend of polyester and spandex.) “If you are in an area where no one else is around, this is likely okay. But they just don’t protect you in the same way, ”says Rimoin.
You should also avoid masks with valves and vents that make it easier to breathe out but defeat one of the primary purposes of a mask: “The point of wearing a mask is to prevent transmission, and face masks with valves and vents do not prevent it from spreading of the coronavirus, “says Rimoin. These types of masks release clouds of particles and may be more hazardous to the wearer than if they were wearing a normal mask. This was the result of a study published in the journal Physics of Fluids in July.
Whichever mask you choose, the most important thing is to A) wear it inside and out and B) disinfect it! “Make sure you wash or sanitize a mask after each use,” says Rimoin. That can mean tossing it in the laundry, leaving it off for a day or two (since the virus doesn’t live well on fabric surfaces, Tierno says), or even steaming it in an instant pot or rice cooker (yes, seriously – 50 minutes Above 100 degrees Celsius is a legitimate disinfection method, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters in July.
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