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Exercising with your mask on? Fitness experts caution against pushing too hard amid new COVID-19 rules

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SINGAPORE: With tighter COVID-19 measures requiring people to wear masks while exercising indoors, fitness studios have made adjustments to moderate- to high-intensity workouts to adhere to the new requirements.   

Under Singapore’s Phase 2 (Heightened Alert), only low-intensity sports and physical activities are allowed at indoor facilities, with masks on at all times.

Classes like spin, zumba and hot yoga, typically considered more intense, are still being offered, according to a check on fitness studios’ social media pages and class booking apps. However, some studios have provided updates on how the sessions will be conducted to adhere to the rules.

Some have made the workouts less intense, provided more exercise options and breaks, as well as moved outdoors.   

Nonetheless, fitness experts said people should not push themselves too hard since they are required to have masks on.

READ: Group sizes down from 5 to 2, dining-in suspended as Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures

Participants should consider their personal medical history, their experience and familiarity with the type of exercise, as well as symptoms felt during the class to decide if it is too intense for them, said Dr Cormac O’Muircheartaigh, a sports medicine physician.

“Light exercises means that you should be able to hold a conversation easily while exercising,” he said, adding that people are only able to “say words” with very high-intensity exercises.

While spinning and zumba are typically moderate- to high-intensity exercises, he noted that they can be safe with masks on, “provided you have no underlying medical conditions that increase your risk”.

EXERCISING WITH CAUTION

People with an underlying condition affecting their heart and lungs should be especially cautious when doing more intense exercises with a mask on, said Dr O’Muircheartaigh, who is also the medical director of Sports Medicine Lab.

These conditions include asthma, heart rhythm problems or ischaemic heart disease, he said. Those who had heat illness or injuries previously should also be more careful, he added.

“In my opinion, masks will increase the work of breathing (and) increase the discomfort and difficulty in attaining peak heart rate or exercise intensity,” he said.

Some of the potential dangers of doing intense exercise with a mask on include shortness of breath and dizziness, possibly triggering an asthma episode, said Mr Dexter Tay, head of training and development at fitness education academy FIT Asia.

people exercising in singapore
A man exercises at a workout corner in Toa Payoh amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

The experts also questioned the effectiveness of a mask when it becomes damp from exercise. 

Mr Tay said that using masks during hot yoga classes, for example, “might be questionable with the perspiration causing the masks to be wet and potentially flimsy, rendering them ineffective”. 

Dr O’Muircheartaigh similarly said that with perspiration on a mask, the effectiveness of the barrier is reduced and it becomes less effective in reducing the risk of transmission.

“For high-intensity exercise, after a short period of time, the indication for wearing a mask becomes useless,” he said.

Mr Tay said people can choose to work out at a moderate intensity and still reap the benefits of exercise.

“It doesn’t mean ‘go hard or go home’. In fact, times like now, it ought to be ‘no need to go so hard so that you can go home’,” he said.

MODIFYING CLASSES TO THE NEW NORMAL

At Bolly Dancing Studio, its director Mihir Wani said participants are encouraged to try one class to see if they can cope with exercising with a mask on, and to go easy on themselves.

“We also tell our participants – whatever you are comfortable with, do only that. If you can’t do 100 per cent, listen to your own body and you can modify accordingly,” he said.

“It’s lucky enough that you’re able to do a class in the studio, don’t go full out.”

Mr Wani said that at Bolly Dancing Studio, which offers classes like zumba and Bollywood dancing, some changes have been made to make sessions more comfortable with masks on.

Besides limiting the number of participants to improve ventilation in the studio, it has also reduced the intensity of classes, Mr Wani said.

“Our classes are mainly song and choreography based, so we choose songs that are not so intense. There are steps like jumping – we avoid that,” he added.

Ms Stephanie Leong, who has been attending power yoga classes which are typically more vigorous, said she was apprehensive at first about attending a class with her mask on the whole time.

However, the 27-year-old said there were options provided to help people adjust.

Yoga
A woman doing yoga. (File photo: Pixabay)

“The class moved at a much slower pace compared to a regular class. Poses were similar, but with many options provided to take it down a notch,” she said. Ms Leong, a fitness instructor herself, added that participants were also given the option of taking more breaks if needed.

TAKING A BREAK WHEN NEEDED

At one outdoor spin class, CNA similarly observed that participants were given several breaks during a 45-minute session. Many of them lowered their masks to drink water during those breaks.

They generally appeared to be able to cope with the intensity of the class. One participant, however, could be seen with his mask below his nose several times. The instructor was also seen wearing her mask like this at times.  

A participant who wanted to be known only as Charlene told CNA that she has been going for outdoor spin classes four to five times a week.

The 31-year-old said one difference between the indoor and outdoor classes are the heat and humidity, especially on a sunny day. 

“The instructors say ‘if it is very very intense, just sit down, breathe first. Don’t push yourself too hard’,” she said, adding that it is advice she has followed.

She said she would mostly pause after the fast-paced moves and take a “breather” with her mask still on.

Another spin enthusiast, 29-year-old Elean Ng, decided to take a break from such exercises classes given the new rules.

“Indoors, with aircon, I am already sweating buckets and catching my breath. Won’t it be worse to be with my mask on, while in the open space?” he said.

Mr Ng used to attend spin classes one to three times a week. Now, the business intelligence developer climbs the stairs to get his dose of exercise.

“Stairwells are less crowded than the footpaths sometimes, and more cooling,” he said.

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