Breathe, Masks, and Exercise

What is breathing? Simple question, right? Well, breathing is perhaps our most basic biological function keeping us alive. It is what sparks the flow of energy in our bodies, which in some Eastern and holistic practices is referred to as Chi, Qi, Xi, Ki, Prana, Spirit, or Life Force.


Biologically, breath is the taking in and letting out of air. During inhalation the air comes in consisting mostly of nitrogen and some oxygen. Our bodies resource the oxygen to sustain and nourish our cells, while during exhalation the air exits, mostly releasing carbon dioxide. These processes lead to a slew of other biological functions that occur instantaneously, including: the lungs filling up and emptying out, the ribs expanding and contracting, and the red blood cells being filled with oxygen to start their journey through the heart and arteries to distribute all that vital oxygen to every single cell in our bodies (referred to as arterial blood flow). Once the blood is depleted of oxygen it flows back to the heart through the veins and is referred to as venous blood flow and the cycle repeats. Without breath we would not exist; breathing allows us not only to nurture our cells but also our minds as it is the first inroad to meditation.


Why wear a mask? Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I suppose like many readers, I generally associated masks with Halloween, scary movies (Jason or Michael Myers, anyone?), historical art, and winter sports. I didn’t really think about medical masks because I am not a surgeon. So shifting our focus toward the medical purpose of masks it seems obvious that it is a barrier to prevent the spreading and receiving of germs. Unfortunately they are a barrier needed by everyone during these times.


Does exercising with a mask restrict one’s breathing? The answer is it depends on the mask and the person. The first time I tried walking or running outside with an N-95 was truly difficult. Many people have found the security of N-95 masks worth the discomfort but for me it felt like wearing an oven on my face.  Luckily, there are many options and I kept experimenting. Next, I tried doing Pilates with a cloth mask with a carbon filter in it. This option was okay but again if it was hot and humid weather my face would quickly get sweaty in uncomfortable ways. Then I tried paper masks which, for me turned out to be the most comfortable for exercising even when I double them as Dr. Fauci suggests.


While wearing a paper mask, my breath doesn’t feel as limited and after a few exercise sequences I even forget I am wearing one unless the mask starts to drift down my face and I need to reposition it. The really good news is I have seen so many people exercising with N-95s, K-95s, buffs, cloth, and paper masks—so embrace that individual choice! The key is test out what works for you and protect yourself and others while continuing to exercise.


Finding a comfortable breath while wearing a mask and exercise has been an adjustment for many, but it is possible. Stay safe and test out the masks with the exercise regimen you enjoy. Stay fit and keep moving. Consider meditating to encourage the natural mind body balance found from focused calm breathing with or without a mask.


Bottom line: even when you wear a mask, you can uncover meaning through personal fitness.

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