An Adjustment: Wearing a Mask While Exercising in New Mexico

With acceptance and understanding, good workouts are still possible.

New Mexico Flag x Face Mask Emoji
New Mexico Flag x Face Mask Emoji

Rigid Restrictions

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, New Mexicans have been living under intensely tight regulations. In fact, a recent Becker’s Hospital report lists New Mexico in the top 10 states with the most COVID-19 restrictions. As of November 2020, Visit Albuquerque’s breakdown of the state’s current limitations includes: a ban on gatherings of more than five people, a mandatory self-quarantine for travelers from high risk states, a shutdown of all businesses that are deemed unessential, and a two-week shelter-in-place for all New Mexicans.

Since March, the New Mexico Department of Health has reported 86,247 cases and counting, which explains why Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s firm requirements for the state are strikingly necessary. While I am thankful to live under a governor who is doing everything she can to keep people safe, there is one mandate in particular that has been difficult for me to adapt to, both mentally and physically.

Mask Mandate

On July 13th, New Mexico had seen 3,049 new positive cases of COVID-19 in only two weeks, which led Governor Lujan Grisham to announce in a press release that masks must be worn at all times, even while exercising. The governor made it clear that there were no exceptions to this rule by enforcing a $100 fine to anyone who breaks it.

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Photo: Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham adjusting her mask.

“Look, nobody wants to wear them. I agree with that basic statement,” Governor Lujan Grisham told The Washington Post in July. “Other societies and countries in their public-health efforts really promote mask-wearing. We haven’t done that. It’s very uncomfortable and it’s not something that we have very effective experience at, but they mitigate the transmission of this virus, so it’s here.”

Only Good Thing In My Life

Initially, even though I understood why our governor needed to buckle down about masks, I was frustrated by this mandate. As a remote graduate student during this pandemic, I no longer have access to certain outlets I took for granted in undergrad, like hanging out with friends, to take my mind off of my studies. Now, I spend my days inside, working on schoolwork from the time I wake up until I go to sleep. Prior to this regulation, I relieved my anxieties by going to the gym or running outside mask-free. It was the one part of the day where I didn’t think have to think about COVID-19 or the work that I needed to get done, but could escape from it all. The news of this mandate made me feel like Ross Geller in Friends when someone at work ate his Thanksgiving sandwich. At the time, my workouts were “the only good thing in my life.”

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Friends, Season 5, Episode 9: “The One with Ross’ Sandwich.”

Therefore, I became determined to find ways to keep exercising effectively while wearing a mask. Hesitantly, I wondered, is it healthy to sweat and breathe heavily with a mask on? Should I run as hard as I did before, or will I run out of breath too quickly? What type of mask is best for my workouts? All I could do to answer these questions swirling around in my head was research the topic online, ask people how they’re adapting to this new norm, and get out there and try it for myself.

Is it safe to exercise in a mask?

Notably, a CNET article, which details the face mask rules for all fifty states, points to New Mexico as the only one requiring that they have to be worn during physical exercise. When I asked Google if it is safe for New Mexicans to be doing so, this COVID-19 alert from the World Health Organization (WHO) is the first thing that poppped up:

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World Health Organization, accessed via Google on November 25, 2020.

“The important preventative measure during exercise is to maintain physical distance of at least one meter,” asserts the WHO.

While the WHO advises people “NOT” to wear masks during exercise, other organizations, like the Mayo Health Clinic argue that it is perfectly all right.

“Yes, it’s safe to wear a mask while exercising, but considerations should be made. It’s recommended that you perform low- to moderate-intensity exercise rather than vigorous exercise while wearing a mask,” affirms the Mayo Health Clinic.

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Mask-wearing bicyclist at El Oso Grande Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The organization’s list of safe mask-wearing exercises includes speed walking, recreational tennis, biking slowly, yoga, ballroom dancing, and yardwork.

Correspondingly, a phone call with Odette DesGeorges from the New Mexico Department of Health further assured me that not only is it okay for most people to work out in masks, but it is “crucial.” As DesGeorges emphasized to me how effective masks are in safeguarding us from COVID-19, I began to think of our governor’s mandate as a protection rather than a burden. Although the COVID-19 alert from the WHO was an off-putting start, a solid portion of other sources I interacted with agree that wearing a mask while working out is a healthy, necessary defense to the spread of the virus.

Local Business Highlight

This mask mandate has thrown some local businesses for a loop, like Albuquerque Heights CycleBar, who had planned on reopening back in August , but postponed “out of concern for our community including our staff and riders.”

As a member, I was disappointed, but understood. Flashing back to the time I nearly passed out after a 45-minute strenuous spin class, I knew that I most likely could not handle that workout with a mask restricting my breathing.

“Unfortunately, approved face coverings, such as multi-layer and cloth face masks, have not worked well for riders and instructors who have worn them during test runs. Additionally, research shows that face coverings may increase a person’s heart rate by 8–12 beats per minute,” CycleBar informed their community.

Opportunely, after a month of testing out riding with masks to ensure the safety of use during the high intensity workout, their employees found the disposable face masks to work well. Therefore, CycleBar opened in October, promising cyclers a safe, sanitized, socially distanced workout.

What is Working for New Mexicans?

Just as it took CycleBar a couple of months to sort things out, it has taken time for me to adapt my mindset and my body to this mandate. Indeed, many people that I talked to felt defeated about this in July, but have since found ways to maintain their workout regime.

For instance, Cheryl Beck, a 60-year-old educational aide, found it too difficult to walk in the heat of the Albuquerque foothills while wearing a blue surgical face mask.

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Photo: Albuquerque Foothills, where Beck goes on masked walks with her neighbor early each morning.

“I ended up carrying it the whole way. I could not do it. I said, ‘This is crazy,’” she recalls. Thankfully, Beck’s friend got her a face shield, which has enabled her to follow the mandate and continue to exercise.

“It was easy to walk once I did the plastic shield, but the mask — I probably wouldn’t have walked anymore. There’s no way,” says Beck.

Similarly, Palma Peterson, a 5th grade teacher at Hope Christian School, cautiously returned to the gym late-September wearing a surgical mask, which she quickly discovered did not work for her elliptical workouts.

“I find the cloth fabric ones work better because I feel like I can breathe. It made it easier to continue exercising. I don’t find it uncomfortable to wear a mask, as long as you find what works best,” says Peterson.

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Photo: Nolan Trammell lifting wearing a mask & lifting weights.

Comparably, it took trial and error with surgical masks for Nolan Trammell, a Membership Representative and weight lifter at Del Norte Sports & Wellness, to reach the conclusion that cloth masks work better for him.

“When I first started working out with a mask on, I personally found that I went too hard and I was having an issue catching my breath, so I gave myself a small panic attack,” remembers Trammell. After four months of wearing cloth masks in the gym, Trammell’s workouts are not affected by it whatsoever.

Likewise, Andrew Stubbs, a Personal Trainer at my gym, Highpoint Sports & Wellness, has fully adapted to wearing a mask while training.

“It’s restricting oxygen. It’s like training in elevation, but when you acclimate, it’s not too bad. Once my clients get used to it, they’re like, ‘It is what it is,’” says Stubbs.

Stubbs’ fellow Highpoint Personal Trainer, Jessica Armijo, has actually seen an improvement in her stamina since she started wearing the mask.

“At first, it bothered me,” says Armijo, “but then, because it was a little bit harder at first to breathe, I used it as something to push me. As a barrier, it made me stronger.”

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A photo I captured during a (masked) workout at Highpoint.

Personal Journey

Surprisingly, unlike those I talked to, I’ve found it easiest to breathe during exercise while wearing a surgical mask. Thus, finding what works best for my own workouts allowed me to come to terms with this mandate. I wholeheartedly agree with Stubbs’ point that once you get used to wearing one, it becomes second nature.

That being said, I have not yet gotten to where I can run in a mask because I get too out of breath. However, I’ve reframed my mindset to be proud of myself just for going on walks. The first tip Self Magazine gives for working out in a mask is to “shift your thinking away from performance-related goals.” For the last few months, I’ve followed this advice by being proud of myself for moving my body each day.

Also, I’ve signed up for new at-home workouts, like yoga with Melissa Wood Health, which I absolutely love. Although this mask mandate was a tough pill to swallow at first, it is now something that I am thankful for because it has encouraged me to be kinder to myself. Additionally, it has pushed me to try new workouts. As long as I set realistic goals for myself, choose the right mask, and stay hydrated during my exercises, I don’t have any problems.

Overall, the process of piecing together this paper and talking to my fellow New Mexicans has inspired me to believe that we truly are all in this together.

University of Oregon Journalism Master’s Student

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